Screenplay : Kario Salem and Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith (story by Daniel E. Taylor and Kario Salem)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Robert De Niro (Nick Wells), Edward Norton (Jackie Teller), Marlon Brando (Max Baron), Angela Bassett (Diane)
The Score is a solid piece of old-fashioned genre work starring a brilliantly assembled cast of heavyweight American actors, one from each of the last three generations. The film relies heavily on the well-worn conventions of the heist picture, and parts of it are so familiar that they feel like comfortable old clothes. Yet, there are just enough twists and surprises to keep even seasoned viewers on their toes, although not quite enough to earn the movie any true distinction.
The youngest heavyweight actor in the film is Edward Norton, who is one of the best actors to emerge in Hollywood in the last 10 years. Whether he's playing a schizophrenic accused murderer (Primal Fear), a brilliant but disturbed skinhead (American History X), or an idealistic young Catholic priest (Keeping the Faith), you're never quite sure what he has up his sleeve, which gives him an edge of uncertainty that always makes him interesting to watch. Representing the middle generation is Robert De Niro, who is by now such an accomplished actor that little needs to be said about him. And, representing the method actors of 50 years ago is the venerable Marlon Brando, who, despite frequent lapses into inadvertent self-parody since his heyday, still packs a punch when he needs to.
De Niro plays Nick Wells, a professional safe cracker who, through steady work and careful choices, has built a solid life for himself. By day he works as the owner of a jazz restaurant, a venture he funds with occasional heist jobs. Getting near the point of retirement, Nick is becoming more and more cautious and less and less trusting.
Nevertheless, he is drawn into one last heist by Max Baron (Brando), a heavyset crime king who has been setting up jobs for Nick for the last 25 years. This particular heist involves breaking into the Montreal customs house to steal a priceless French scepter from the 17th century. The necessarily entails an inside man, Jackie Teller, who is played by Norton. Nick immediately dislikes and distrusts Jackie's youthful braggadocio and bombast--the way he approaches Nick on the street, brags about his abilities, and doesn't mind flashing a gun if it will get the job done. These are all things that grind against Nick's way of doing things, and he doesn't mind letting Jackie know.
Yet, the fact remains that Jackie is a clever man and he has done his homework: Pretending to be a mentally handicapped janitor, he has scoped out most of the customs house, noting the security system, the building's layout, the routines of those who work there at night. Thus, he feels he is entitled to a certain amount of respect, which Nick is loath to give him because he doesn't trust him.
Nick's life is further complicated by his involvement with a girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett), a stewardess who is ready to settle down with him until she finds out that he's doing one more job. She knows all too well what the phrase "one more job" means. It's something she's obviously heard before, and since it didn't mean anything then, she had no reason to believe that it means anything now. The role of Diane is a largely thankless one, and it feels like it was inserted late into the script to give Nick's character more development. Simply put, she isn't necessary to the movie, and her relationship with Nick is so sketchy and ill-defined (there just isn't enough time for De Niro and Basset on-screen together) that it doesn't add much to his character's dilemma.
Director Frank Oz, who has, until this point, worked primarily with comedies such as Bowfinger (1999) and In & Out (1997), picks up the narrative slack once the movie comes to actually pulling off the heist. Intricately designed criminal activity has been a mainstay of the movies, even when it was supposedly forbidden by the Production Code, so The Score has a long ancestry of bank robberies, safe cracking, car jackings, and kidnappings to keep up with. The actual robbery sequence is quite well-done, as Oz deftly weaves multiple situations together, each of which has the potential for disaster. The cracking of the safe is clever and unexpected, which is always a plus in movies of this sort.
Yet, the main problem with The Score is that its parts--the old pro criminal on his last heist, the details of the intricate robbery, the distrust among thieves, the tension between two generations of criminals with different codes of conduct--have been so well-worn over the years to such a high polish of expected excitement, that you wish the filmmakers had gone for more. Even though the movie is certainly entertaining, and the ending packs quite a moralistic punch in putting Norton's overconfident character in his place, when it's over, you can't quite shake the feeling that nothing new was accomplished. But, be that as it may, The Score can't be faulted for doing very well what others have done before.
©2001 James Kendrick