When the tart American satirist Joe Queenan appeared at the Melbourne Writers Festival in the late '90s, an audience member asked if there were any contemporary American films he actually liked. "Copland," he replied and, when pressed for reasons, added: "Well, De Niro and Keitel do their acting thing."
The Score is the latest movie that exists almost purely for the sake of an acting thing. This time, Robert De Niro is flanked by Marlon Brando and Edward Norton.
It is not hard to see the entire plot as a thinly veiled allegory for the spectacle of what might conceivably happen when three generations of powerhouse actors share the screen. De Niro testily defers to Brando, while Norton keeps complaining that he gets no respect.
The plot that provides the pretext for this star-studded joust is a familiar one involving a master thief, Nick (De Niro), lured back into the game for one last sure thing by his old comrade, Max (Brando). The situation becomes complicated once Max also ropes the unpredictable young gun Jack (Norton) into the scheme.
Beyond his work for great directors like Martin Scorsese (Casino, 1996) and Michael Mann (Heat, 1995), De Niro's choice of projects predictably alternates these days between comedies like Meet the Parents (2000) and hardboiled crime-caper thrillers like Ronin (1998).
The Score fits squarely into the latter type. As usual, the action is filled with the kind of painstaking, logistical detail on which De Niro demands absolute verisimilitude. In particular, the film is a veritable audio-visual manual on how to crack a high-security safe.
Attempts to soften Nick's unsmiling, hyper-practical character – by associating him with a cool jazz club and a caring lover, Diane (Angela Bassett) – generate little sympathy for his mounting, no-way-out dilemma.
The direction by Frank Oz and the script (including input from the talented Lem Dobbs) create some fine, gripping scenes, such as the open-air set-piece in which Nick's and Jack's methods for handling an amateur operator come into sharp conflict. Overall, however, The Score is a smooth but uneventful genre exercise.
© Adrian Martin November 2001