It’s a performance to remember: eager to please, thrumming and able to negotiate every curve in the dumb script. And the bod, though relatively small and boxy, is still hot. Not bad when you think that this baby has been performing since the 1950s.
The object of my affection is the Mini Cooper, the car that steals every scene in The Italian Job, a tricked-out remake of a heist flick that was already flat and formulaic in 1969. Michael Caine — driving a classic Mini — led the plan to steal $4 million in gold bullion by diverting traffic in Turin, Italy. Now it’s Mark Wahlberg behind the wheel of a new Mini — BMW relaunched the line in 2002 — causing traffic hell in Los Angeles as he speeds off with gold bullion worth $34 million. You can’t stop inflation, except when it comes to talent and bold imagination.
The Italian Job is just the latest lemon in the used-car lot we call Hollywood. If a new movie isn’t a sequel (2 Fast 2 Furious) or a remake (The In-Laws), it’s something constructed out of spare parts (Bruce Almighty feels like a chop-shop version of The Truman Show). What you need to keep in mind here is that these jobbies are most often commercial hits. And actors do them to stay alive in the business.
Wahlberg, far from the glory days of Boogie Nights and Three Kings, is the man with the plan. Charlize Theron is the babe safecracker. Jason Statham is the wheelman. Each actor gets one thing to play. It works better with Seth Green as the computer whiz and Mos Def as the explosives expert, because they get laughs. Donald Sutherland, in the eminence grise role swanned by Noel Coward in the original, is appealing, but he disappears quickly. The most perversely magnetic performance by a noncar comes from Edward Norton, who took on the villain role with a gun to his head (he had to fulfill a contract obligation). His justified contempt for the material oozes through every frame.
The script is the hack handiwork of Wayne and Donna Powers, the husband-and-wife writing team behind the current Showtime series Out of Order, in which Eric Stoltz and Felicity Huffman play a married writing team who rail at producers who question their work. Sample line: “He’s going to logic us to death.” Well, logic has no place in The Italian Job. It’s certainly not demanded by F. Gary Gray, who directs with all the reverence for cliché he showed in the Vin Diesel bomb A Man Apart.
That leaves the Mini Coopers. I won’t spoil what little this film has of surprise, but to watch three of them — red, white and blue — outrun a helicopter, burn rubber over the Hollywood Walk of Fame, bump down stairs into a subway station and execute a series of slides, 360s, 180s and reverse 180s is to experience this flick’s one true kick. Yes, if you must know, the three cars had understudies — a fleet of thirty-two Minis to take the lumps for the big three. But priced as low as $16,975, these small wonders are worth more than costly star egos. The Italian Job is a triumph for the machines, more proof that we do indeed live in the Matrix.