This is a well written heist film with Robert De Niro at the top of his form playing against Marlon Brando (reminding us of his greatness) and Edward Norton (completely up to the necessary level). And, much should be said in praise of director Frank Oz (best known for his Muppets and as the voice for Yoda in "Star Wars: Episode I") who expertly develops and holds a high level of taut suspense throughout Daniel E. Taylor's and Kario Salem's superb script.
After returning home to Montreal with a set of very valuable jewels he heisted in the opening sequence, an episode designed to convince us of his masterful control and professionalism, safecracker Nick Wells (De Niro) hands them off to stolen goods entrepreneur Max (Brando) who has the terrible news that the buyer for them has croaked and there will be no payoff anytime soon. But, not to worry, Max has a much bigger score in place -- a priceless royal scepter worth millions and worth around $4 mil as Nick's cut.
But Nick, who has been in Max's employ for many lucrative years, and despite this payoff being more than he's made in all that time, has other things in mind, like retirement. It seems that he's got to make a move to save his relationship with his exquisite girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett) and an escape to a warm island seems just the thing at this point in his lovelife and career.
All of which provides conflict between the two criminals as Max finds new ways to convince Nick that the job, for which he has a man working on the inside, is just right for his particular skills and daring. And Nick, who runs a jazz bar (featuring Mose Allison and Cassandra Wilson) as a cover for his contract work, finds new ways to decline the offer. Until the inside man Jack, who is really Brian masquerading as an autistic janitor (Edward Norton) in the high security Montreal Customs House, a closely guarded fortress, virtually foists himself on Nick in an effort to get him to go along.
Eventually, Nick wears down, going back on his own vow never to work in his own city and agrees to do the box work while Brian alias Jack takes care of the computer controlled security system, including infrared scanners, a battery of cameras and whatever other devices threaten to hinder the operation. But not without first asserting his dominance in pulling off the heist, a demand that Brian must go along with. What follows is a study in how a computer genius and a safecracker with a complete knowledge of metallurgy and the applicable principles of physics to penetrate just about any safe made by man might combine to pull off a score few others would attempt. It's a job requiring split second timing and control under pressure comparable to world class athletes as well as high tech equipment you'd expect to find in NASA's space workshop. The details of plan and execution build and maintain a delicious level of suspense and tension.
But we're more involved than this might sound. Enough attention is payed to the details of character for us to root for the bad guys and take sides as personalities clash and double crosses get twisted around. Like the ads say, "There are no partners in crime".
There has been much attention in the press to the real life conflicts on the set while the movie was made, particularly that between Brando and director Oz. One might infer that Brando had a problem with producer Lee Rich's selection of a Muppet character with no prior experience in serious drama to direct such a demandingly serious piece of work. You might infer that but there's no evidence of it on screen. Brando was never so distracted by any consideration to have let if affect what is a dedicated and fully shaded performance. And Oz, for his part, has delivered a near masterpiece of dramatic fare, proving Rich's theory that directors of comedy have plenty of potential for serious drama.
Edward Norton stands out in this very select group with a completely engaging way of sliding between the two strong characters he's playing. The transition he makes as he takes off the mask of autism to reveal the sly, very serious robber underneath is a morph. It's a lesson on the actor's craft. In a movie with De Niro and Brando, that's saying quite a lot.
It may be too early in the year to be thinking awards, but come December, this is a movie that should seem worthy of consideration on several levels.
Estimated cost: $68,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $68,000,000.
Rated T, for Taut.