The Score



USA 2001
director : Frank Oz
script : Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith (story: Salem, Daniel E Taylor)
cinematography : Rob Hahn
editing : Richard Pearson
music : Howard Shore
lead actors : Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett
123 minutes

Popcorn-munching teens should look elsewhere – The Score is for adults only. But this doesn’t mean it’s full of steamy sex or gut-churning violence: very much the opposite, in fact. This is one tasteful production, designed with mature audiences in mind: a heist thriller that’s intelligent, without being too twisty or demanding. The results are enjoyable in a refreshingly old-fashioned kind of way, with some unexpected touches that elevate what’s essentially a pretty basic crime drama. Most obviously, there’s that ostentatious big-name casting, which falls just the right side of being gimmicky with its three show-off generations of prime US male acting talent.

While none of the trio are exactly pushing back their professional frontiers here, neither are they exactly idling or slumming it. De Niro is Nick, a safe-cracking wizard eager to retire and devote himself to his up-market jazz club and his chic air-hostess girlfriend (Bassett). But he’s persuaded to take on one last job by his colleague/mentor Max (Brando), who’s found out that a priceless French sceptre is being held in a nearby fortified customs-house. Max’s trump card is his man on the inside – ambitious young crook Jack (Norton), posing as an autistic janitor, “Brian.”

Many elements add class to this unspectacular set-up, most notably the fact that it all takes place in Montreal, so often used as an unconvincing stand-in for US cities in penny-pinching American productions, but here emerging as a strong location in its own right. In a typically deft in-joke, Nick’s jazz-club is called ‘NYC’ (pronounced, perhaps, ‘Nyc’?). And this is an unusually convincing establishment, complete with appearances by legendary real-life performers Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison. In most cases, jazz-fan directors use this subculture as an excuse to overload their soundtracks with intrusive saxes and clarinets – Anthony Minghella and Mike Figgis are repeat offenders – but Oz gets it just right, emphasising Howard Shore’s moody, only vaguely jazzy score.

It’s typical of the sure hand Oz shows every department – he gives his actors room to explore their characters in unusually lengthy scenes, without sacrificing anything in terms of pacing or audience interest. It helps that the picture has a precisely-crafted, luxurious look and feel – entirely appropriately, given the impeccable professionalism of Nick and his collaborators. But all this slickness can’t quite compensate for the deficiencies in the script, which was reportedly cobbled together at the very last minute. The haste shows – not least in the disappointingly short shrift accorded to Bassett, who’s stuck with an underwritten ‘nag’ role that’s really just a plot mechanism. She’s always a welcome presence in a movie, though here you end up wondering if Bassett represents yet another in-joke, given De Niro’s famous real-life habit of only dating black women.

Even more troubling is the whole matter the cliched ‘one last job’ set-up. We believe implicitly in Nick’s cool professionalism, and surely somebody this in control, with such a seductive ‘straight’ life awaiting him, would balk at the various problems which keep springing up to complicate the heist. Nick tells Jack that if anything looks like it might be too much of a gamble, he’ll abruptly “walk” – end of story. But even as the odds keep getting longer and longer, he never walks, proving what a very distant cousin he is of De Niro’s master-thief Neil Macaulay from Heat. Likewise, Frank Oz’s glossy stylings fall a long way short of Michael Mann. Viewed alongside that kind of transcendence, this is really just kids’ stuff.

3rd October, 2001 (seen Oct-2-01, UGC Boldon, Sunderland)

by Neil Young
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