The Score

| July 16, 2001

Everywhere you turn in The Score, Frank Oz’s crime film that is notable because of its extraordinary cast, you run into gates, and doors, and locks. And most of the time, once you get through those gates and doors and locks, you find yourself in shadowy rooms. Tiny slivers of light seep out from here and there, but darkness dominates, and it’s clear that it takes both know-how and guts to get out of such places unscathed. It is within these low-lit dens that the characters lay out their plan to steal a priceless artifact, in much the same way this familiar plot has been laid out, countless times, before.
But, with Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Edward Norton headlining his cast, Oz has three generations of the best acting talent out there at his disposal. So, is that enough to overcome a generic script and some lackadaisical directing? Not quite, but the movie has its moments just the same.
Robert De Niro (who I swear has said these same exact lines before) is Nick, a Montreal-based safecracker who is ready to settle down to a life spent running his jazz club/restaurant. After 25 years of slowly -and illegally- acquiring everything he’s ever desired, Nick has decided to call it quits. But Max, his longtime partner on the distribution end, played with relish by Marlon Brando, has one more job for him, and it’s one that will allow Nick to exit the game free and clear. Nick’s devoted girlfriend, played by Angela Bassett, doesn’t like it, but he decides to take the chance and go out on a high note.
The inside man on the job is a cocky young guy named Jack who is looking for a little bit of respect to go along with the potential bounty. Ed Norton has the brains and even the smarmy confidence (stolen from The Rounders’ Worm) to make Jack’s attitude believable, even if the conceit that someone as aggressive as Jack has the discipline to feign a mental handicap for 8 hours a night doesn’t hold up. The cautious and methodical Nick doesn’t like Jack very much; the kid’s too hot-blooded, and Nick doesn’t like violating his long-standing rule against doing a robbery in the town where he lives. But he knows it’s his ticket out, and the young kid impresses him with his intelligence and determination, so he stays on his toes and forges ahead.
Jack has already established himself inside the Montreal Customs House where the 17th Century French scepter is being held. Posing as Brian, a mentally disabled night janitor, Jack is able to get information, make keys and monitor the security from within. His information on the building’s defenses is necessary, and his Brian is considered so benign that he can wander around without arousing suspicion. But although Jack’s position as inside man is crucial, Nick is the one responsible for breaking in and retrieving the bounty, so he therefore takes control of the actual operation. He is ready to pull out at any time if it gets too risky, and there are several moments when he has to reign Jack in and put him in his place to keep the arrangement stable. De Niro fills Nick with weary, and wary, poise, but even he is not without some moments of hesitation.
Plenty of complications arise to give Nick pause, and although he tries to keep the young guy under control, Jack’s resentment is enough to strain their tenuous partnership and keep us unsure about who is really in control.
As Nick and Jack work their way closer to the actual job, it becomes apparent that there just isn’t enough material in this story to keep it interesting. Rather than try and develop Jack or Max’s characters, Oz and the writers fill the middle portion of the film with some unconvincing scenes concerning computer hackers and Nick’s relationship with his girlfriend. When the director is forced to try and make reading a blueprint suspenseful, you know he’s running out of steam, and the second act struggles to stay dynamic. The only truly developed character is Nick, and it’s mostly De Niro who subtly fills in the blanks. While his interaction with Angela Bassett seems to be a clue to some broader understanding of his character, she is vastly underused and her role seems edited down. Max also disappears for much of the film, resurfacing on the brink (both literally and figuratively) of the deep end, and we get not one glimpse into Jack’s life outside of the heist.
But it’s the actors, not the hackneyed and underdeveloped story, that keep your attention, and it is genuinely exciting to see De Niro and Brando play off each other in the few scenes they share. Watching the young Vito Corleone sit across the table from the Godfather is quite a treat, and you can tell the two pros are having a good time. De Niro is clearly relaxed in his scenes with Brando, who hams it up to enjoyable effect. In fact, De Niro is so subdued playing the cautious, tired safe-cracker, the only time he seems to be having any fun is during his scenes with Marlon.
Norton does a good enough job with the paper-thin role of Jack (his showy depiction of Brian is strictly one-note), particularly during the conversations he shares with De Niro that could just as easily pertain to acting as they do to safe cracking. The film really comes to life when all three are on screen together, but the material isn’t quite up to the job of matching expectations.
By the time the third act of The Score arrives, Nick has had his reservations and gotten past them, for the standard reasons of loyalty and professionalism. Oz does a decent job directing the final heist, but overall he seems too concerned with drawing out thematic nuances that aren’t there to make the movie as suspenseful as it needs to be. The standard twist is pretty obvious and the end is a bit abrupt, but the low-key panache with which De Niro and Norton get through it left me smiling as I walked out. Cautious and cool but still able to get so flustered that he’ll fumble his car keys during a getaway and breathe heavily as he works a safe, Nick has the wisdom to know he’s getting too old for the game, and the cunning to make one more score.

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