Steal away 

In defense of the well-worn heist film

The Art of the Steal offers all the basic heist movie tropes, and I say that's fine.

At the start of the picture we meet Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell), who is about to serve out a prison sentence in Warsaw, Poland, on account of a heist gone wrong. We see Crunch and his crew execute a job where they present a real painting to villainous potential buyers that gets swapped out for a fake painting with some tricky subterfuge. There are high-speed chases and alarms going off in museums, and it all goes off perfectly until it doesn't. When Calhoun's half-brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) gets nabbed, he does the unscrupulous thing and lets Crunch take the rap.

Now it's more than five years later and Crunch is out early for good behavior. The brothers are estranged and Crunch's new vocation involves motorcycle shows where he gets paid a paltry sum to take life-threatening falls. He gets offered an extra $800 to wind up in practically a full body cast. I'm not a doctor, but I'm pretty sure the economics on that don't pan out.

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  • Not suspicious at all.

Since his stint in the pen, Crunch has picked up a loyal apprentice named Francie, played by Jay Baruchel, and an obscenely beautiful girlfriend named Lola (Katheryn Winnik). Early on, Crunch says that it isn't money that holds the world together, but trust, so when younger brother Nicky comes back to propose the infamous "one last score," it's not really the financial gain that hangs in the balance, but the fate of the brothers' relationship. Nicky says he feels bad about sending his brother to prison, and surely this complicated plot involving the theft of a painting in holding at the Michigan/Canadian border will make them all rich and heal old wounds. It's an insane, super high-risk scheme wherein one false move would send them all to prison for a very long time, but even so, I'm more comfortable with this than the whole falling off motorcycles for money career path. An Irishman they call Uncle Paddy (Kenneth Welsh) and a Frenchman in charge of forging the art, Guy (Chris Diamantopoulos), come back into the fold and the crew is back together once again.

Every fun crime story needs a buzzkill, and here that comes in the form of Interpol Agent Bick, played by Jason Jones ("The Daily Show"). He's been partnered with Samuel Winters (Terence Stamp), an ex-criminal finishing up the last of his community service, so let's just say his loyalties are fluid.

There you have it: all the elements are in place for a by-the-numbers heist picture. Just look at the names of the characters: Crunch, Francie, Agent Bick, a 50-year-old little brother named "Nicky." Jonathan Sobol, whose past work includes films you've never heard of like Citizen Duane and A Beginner's Guide to Endings, directed and wrote the screenplay. There's a comforting predictability to the setup that other critics have called derivative, but I prefer to look at it more as what we refer to in literary circles as "conventions of the genre." The plot goes through a series of twists and turns before finally settling on what it hopes is a surprise ending. It surprised me a little, but I have a talent for willfully shutting off my brain to what's obviously coming, so long as the movie has earned the suspension of my belief.

I'm recommending The Art of the Steal because even bad heist movies are often fun, and I found these characters delightful. Russell plays the part with his characteristic hapless charm that we've barely seen since 2007's Death Proof. He's not taking himself as seriously as certain other aging stars (cough, Robert Redford). And Baruchel and Jones add humor to the film, too. Lastly, in a world where subpar films seem to be getting longer and longer, this one runs a snappy 90 minutes, which is just the right amount of time to spend on art of this caliber.

The Art of the Steal screens at the Wilma Thu., March 20.

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