Film #43: The Score (2001)

film 43 the score

Rating: 3/5

“When was it you started thinking you were better than me?”

Despite an excellent core cast, The Score never really manages to be anything other than a fairly run of the mill, standard heist movie. That’s not to say it’s not engaging – it’s well shot, well acted and, once the actual robbery gets under way, is effectively tense – but it’s all rather understated. It’s probably because of this that Frank Oz’s film has left little mark on what is often a big budget, high concept, flashy genre.

There’s very little originality in The Score‘s plot, yet its conventions are included without any sense of irony – this is a film filled with serious actors, and each treat the screenplay and their roles within it with an intensity that has now come to be expected of them. Two of the main four are also notoriously difficult to work with – Edward Norton, who plays the cocky young thief assigned to work with Robert De Niro’s more seasoned professional, was famously removed from the Bruce Banner role in the Marvel franchise after making unreasonable demands about the script of The Incredible Hulk. Similarly, Marlon Brando (in his last feature performance), made this film’s shoot a decidedly unpleasant place to work – he walked around naked because of the heat, played practical jokes on De Niro, called the director “Miss Piggy”, and even refused to smile for his final scene (it was added in digitally in post-production). It is perhaps no wonder that, despite the calibre of acting on set, none of the ensemble produce their best work.

De Niro is Nick, owner of a jazz club in Montreal and part-time thief. He’s careful and conscientious, avoids violence, and plans everything down to the finest detail. His boss, Max (Brando) asks him to do one last job (of course) and, naturally, it proves to be the most difficult – weighing the risks (the object in question, a sceptre, is locked in the vaults of the Custom House in Montreal) against the payload (Max offers him $4 million), Nick decides to flout all his previous rules (don’t rob in your back yard, don’t work with a stranger, etc) and commit his final crime. Yet it’s his partner who causes the most problems. Jack (Norton) has managed to infiltrate the Custom House by posing as a mentally handicapped night janitor, and while he’s undoubtedly gifted, he’s unreliable and egotistical. His recklessness is most problematic for Nick, who just wants to retire in peace and enjoy life with his air steward girlfriend Diane (Angela Bassett).

So far, so formulaic. The Score remains formulaic right to the end – there are no surprises as to the outcome or how the characters will reach it. That being said, an essential aspect of the heist movie genre is the heist itself, and the intrigue, complexity, and innovation of the criminals in getting their target and, in this respect, The Score is perfectly adequate; it is less focused on confusing the audience than on creating a tense and suspenseful final act. After all, Nick is always careful, he doesn’t leave anything up to chance, and even the addition of the more unruly Jack is not enough to really disrupt his plans. There are no unexpected explosions, no ridiculous twists (at least none that aren’t inevitable), no silly decisions that make everything spiral out of control. Like Nick, The Score is careful; the only problem with the screenplay is that it’s not quite as clever as it appears to think it is.

It is, however, entertaining enough. Instead of fast-paced action, it concentrates on the characters, allowing the actors to perform average roles with reasonable success. Brando dominates the few scenes he appears in, both in terms of stature and performance; even in old age, despite his apparent disregard for the film itself, there is something quite captivating about him, so much so that De Niro fades into the background when they share the screen. This is perhaps because, of the two actors, it is Brando who appears to be enjoying himself – De Niro lacks the twinkle in the eye that audiences have now become accustomed to due to his re-establishment as a comedy performer.

Norton is tasked with the biggest challenge and, like the others, is perfectly adequate as both the rebellious thief and his adopted persona, Brian the simpleton. Brian is well-realised, both in terms of Jack-as-Brian and Norton-as-Jack-as-Brian, but because we are aware it is a performance almost as soon as the character appears, he is never quite believable – Brian only exists within the Custom House, and Jack freely roams the streets of Montreal without ever considering that someone from within the building might recognise him. It’s this strange lack of nuance within the screenplay that causes the most problems for the film’s reception. However, it must be said that, although Norton’s performance hardly matches that of, for example, Leonardo Di Caprio’s in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, the most poignant scenes in the film are those shared by Brian and his janitorial mentor Danny (Paul Soles).

The Score may not have created any waves when it was first released, and it will never match the excitement and pizazz of later heist movies (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Oceans Eleven, even the recently released Now You See Me) but it’s not trying to. Oz’s film emerges as a more mature movie, in comparison to the entertaining immaturity of many other examples. It’s a more subtle, serious film, slow-burning and tense – generic, but effective.

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