The Austin Chronicle

The Score

Rated R, 123 min. Directed by Frank Oz. Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett, Gary Farmer, Paul Soles.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 13, 2001

The possibilities were frightening. No one knew exactly what to expect when Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and Edward Norton -- among the three best, and most charismatic, actors of their generations -- were announced as co-stars in a crime thriller directed by Frank Oz, a man heretofore known for his exclusive direction of film comedies (In & Out, What About Bob?) and acting work that gave life to such varied -- and inhuman -- characters as Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, The Muppet Show's Miss Piggy, and the Star Wars saga's all-knowing Yoda. The combination might instantly combust, Method Act itself into sheer hysterics, or worse, limp ignominiously to the finish line. As things turned out, none of the above scenarios proved true: The Score is a solidly entertaining heist caper leaning more toward the quiet procedural model than the suspenseful thriller mode. It's almost as if the filmmakers were required to tone down the genre's customary blow-'em-up theatrics to accommodate the incendiary human forces already at work on the screen. The tone of The Score is noticeably low-key, especially for a thriller, but that keeps our focus on the characters and their preparation for the heist. Oz's greatest strength here is not in building tension, but rather in creating a mood and milieu which envelops these characters. (And speaking of milieus, this is just about the only American film made in Montreal that is also set in Montreal and doesn't pretend to use the city as a stand-in for New York or some other American urban center.) The movie's compositions (filmed by cinematographer Rob Hahn) and sets (Jackson De Govia) are frequently stunning, especially the upscale jazz club that serves as a front for De Niro's aging thief -- a club where, not incidentally, we get to hear snatches of performances by Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison. The script holds few surprises. Nick (De Niro) is ready to hang up his thieving shingle to simply run his jazz club and wed his longtime girlfriend Diane (a very under-utilized Bassett). But his fence, Max (a working-on-all cylinders Brando), talks Nick into one last heist -- one that breaks two of Nick's iron-clad rules: Never work in your hometown, and never work with a partner. The partner turns out to be a kid named Jack (Norton, in a dual-personality role that recalls his riveting work in Primal Fear) looking to make his first really big score but in need of Nick's superior safe-cracking skills to pull off the job. The story's formula is familiar and whatever suspense The Score has is not built flamboyantly or noisily. Our pleasure derives from watching all the creative participants in this movie go through their paces and riff creatively on the established themes. It may be The Score's equivalent of its jazz undercurrent: improvising on and enriching the old familiar standards. You get the sense that this elegant, tough-guy jazz caper is a movie Clint Eastwood might have been proud to make.

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