Rated R - Running Time: 2:00 - Released 7/13/01

I have not actually been on the edge of my seat many times (at least not in a movie theater), but Frank Oz's crime drama The Score had me fidgeting all over the place, thanks largely to the film's talented cast. This is director and veteran muppet-meister Oz's first "serious movie," after such frothy fare as What About Bob?, In & Out, and Bowfinger, and he has chosen wisely in assembling his players. Although its script (by Daniel E. Taylor, Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith) is certainly nothing special, sporting the finest in trite plot elements and highly unlikely circumstances, The Score proves what a difference it makes when the formula is placed in the right hands. The combination of highly capable young actor Edward Norton (American History X, Keeping the Faith) with elder thespians Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando provides an intriguing mix, and no doubt Oz realized this trio had a chance of making a run-of-the-mill crime story into something special.

The first character we meet in this story is an aging thief who wants to retire but must make one final score to set himself up for life. Wow — what a clever premise; I wonder why no one has ever thought of that before. Although he has serious misgivings about the job, professional con man and jazz club owner Nick (De Niro) grudgingly teams up with young upstart Jack (Norton) to steal a jewel-encrusted 17th-century French royal scepter from the Montreal customs house. Openly mistrusting his intelligent but pushy partner, Nick is convinced by his boss (Brando), whose role isn't exactly made clear, to go ahead even when the plan gets complicated.

Accoutered with a seemingly endless supply of high-tech thief gadgetry (available from the Sharper Image thief supply catalogue or on the back page of American Larcenist magazine) and using information Jack has gathered while working as a janitor at the customs house (feigning mental retardation in order to avoid suspicion from the guards), the two men enact an ever-increasingly complex scheme to infiltrate the high-security building and yoink the priceless relic, all the while suspecting each other (and rightly so) of mutual double-crossery.

If this film were not populated by such able actors, it would be less than memorable, but Norton and De Niro are both truly compelling in their characterizations; with the subtlest of eye movements and behavioral body English, Norton conveys volumes of subtext. It's highly satisfying to see two great actors like De Niro and Brando interacting together in their first joint venture (no, The Godfather trilogy doesn't count, since they weren't in the same movie together). Also present is Angela Bassett in a convincing turn as Nick's stewardess girlfriend. As with Brando, there is no pressing need for her to be there, but Bassett justifies what little screen time she inhabits.

Even if Oz isn't the greatest at picking scripts, he at least proves that he can pick actors, and guide them to create a satisfying product (although De Niro apparently did some of the directing himself, thanks to Brando's alleged refusal to work with Oz). Despite the inadequacies of its text and the tumultuous quality of its offscreen atmosphere, The Score is at its best truly gripping, and even at its worst, not really all that bad. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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