The Score

on July 13, 2001 by Wade Major
   Anyone nervy enough to attempt making a heist film these days is already in deep water since most such pictures resort to either shamelessly ripping off other heist movies or, deluded that there's still room for originality in the genre, indulge in the most ludicrous contrivances imaginable. The handful that actually manage to find their way out of this thicket are so few and far between that they are just a handful, most of which, like "The Killing" and "Rififi," center on failure rather than success.

   Incredibly, "The Score," one of the worst heist pictures in recent memory, has managed to attract some of the best talent in Hollywood: director Frank Oz, screenwriter Lem Dobbs and stars Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando (Angela Bassett is also listed as a star, though her screen time barely amounts to a television commercial). It's something of a relief that no one seems to really know how bad the film is, giving "The Score" a veneer that makes it look like a much better picture than it is.

   De Niro's Nick Wells is the lynchpin to the intended heist, a seasoned safecracker who would love to retire and enjoy the quiet life of a Montreal jazz club owner, settling down with his longtime lady luck, Diane (Angela Bassett). That's when his longtime partner and buyer, Max (Marlon Brando), offers him "the score" that will let him do just that. The problem is it would require Nick to violate one of his primary directives: pulling off a job in his own "backyard." The target is a priceless gold scepter, recently discovered in the leg of a termite-infested piano that had been quarantined by Canadian customs. As if doing a job in Montreal weren't bad enough, Nick will have to rely on a partner about whom he knows nothing, the "inside man" at the Customs House, a wily and overeager type named Jack (Edward Norton) who has managed to land himself a job as a night janitor by pretending to be mentally retarded.

   Once Nick has been persuaded to play, the movie goes through the obligatory paces of planning the job, working out the details and covering the bases. It's a nicely-photographed, competently edited and generally well-acted hour of utter and complete tedium as ludicrous details and complications are invented for no reason but to give the characters hurdles to clear. Beyond the fact that none of the twists are even remotely credible, Jack and Nick are repeatedly shown making the most fundamental blunders and miscalculations--yet another instance of contriving complications for no other reason than to fill out screen time.

   The only thing that almost redeems the film is climactic double-twist that's really not all that original, but which nonetheless so far exceeds everything that came before that it almost seems like a master-stroke by comparison. Unfortunately, the nearly two-hour slog that audiences will have to endure to get there scarcely makes it worthwhile.

   For veteran comedy director Frank Oz, "The Score" was to have been a graduation to more serious fare. And, from a technical standpoint, it's a respectable job. Well-photographed, solidly-acted and technically competent, "The Score" shows signs of the film that could have been if not for the failings of the script and some flabby pacing.

   It's a murkier question as to where blame for the screenplay should be laid. With a story by "Daniel E. Taylor and Kario Salem" and a screenplay by "Kario Salem and Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith," it's impossible to know for certain just whose contributions are where. And, perhaps, it's just as well. Sharing the blame may be the easiest way for all involved to forget the experience and move on. Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett and Marlon Brando. Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Kario Salem and Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith. Produced by Gary Foster and Lee Rich. A Paramount release. Thriller. Rated R for language. Running time: 124 min

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