A viewer’s got to be leery of a film with so many production companies attached to it, eight on the box, four in the credits on The Art of the Steal—not to be confused with the 2009 documentary film of the same name, both of which deal with stolen art work. This is a heist flick carried by legendary screen charm from the likes of Kurt Russell, Terrence Stamp, and Matt Dillon. I mean what’s going on in the world when movies for men have to scrape together funding. On paper, let alone in print, this film should be green-lit.
The film opens with Russell’s Crunch Calhoun being escorted to his cell in a grizzly prison after a botched art lift. Russell is pure pro, always has been whether Overboard or Tango & Cash, and here he manages to create charm and chemistry with stereotypical goons and crooks. The crux of the movie is trust amongst criminals—honesty and betrayal—and everybody has an angle. For Crunch it runs deeper, the differences between he and his half-brother/partner Nicky (Dillon) are glaring. Crunch, the elder, is reserved and weary of the quick payoff, while the younger dimwit—though not younger by much—is impulsive and greedy. Nicky has no patience for delayed gratification, declaring with mugger’s tenacity “This is Poland. We can do whatever the fuck we want.”
Unfortunately they listen to him, and when Nicky gets pinched during the film’s opening getaway, he rolls over on Crunch for a cool seven years in a Polish penitentiary. Out in five-and-a-half with good behavior, Crunch comes home and hooks up with good luck showgirl Lola (Katheryn Winnick of Viking) and hubcap-stealing degenerate Francie (Jay Baruchel of Undeclared). They’re a showtime team for Crunch who’s running dirt bikes during monster-truck-show interludes for nickels on the dollar in front of audiences hoping he cracks his skull. When times are hard, he takes the fall with pained glee.
The plot thickens when Jason Jones (The Daily Show, Pitch Perfect) and Terrence Stamp (The Limey) as a couple of Interpol agents, Bick and Winters respectively, detour Nicky at the airport looking for a stolen watercolor. They get nothing, but we learn Nicky’s back in the game and still rolling over on everybody including Sunny (Dax Ravina), a young irate Canadian crook Nicky burns over Georges Seurat’s Model Rearview. Seurat was a late-19th century French post-impressionist known as a pointillism, an approach where artists create a larger image using pure color dots. The metaphor ties together as Crunch and the gang asses their strengths and weaknesses not just as individuals, but as a collective, as part of the whole crew.
We see it play out as Crunch and Nicky duke it out when they come back face to face. Like great brothers, neither love nor animosity is lost and without mom or dad around to break it up, the latter wins out. They put the crew back together. The elder statesmen Uncle Paddy (Kenneth Welsh) and the forger Guy de Cornet (Chris Diamantopoulos and an insanely over-the-top French accent) are called in. They’re after one of the rarest books ever printed, The Gospel of James, a sacred 16th Century text whose contents are at odds with the Bible. The book was lifted from a Belgian museum, smuggled into Canada, and is now working its way into the U.S.
Obviously it’s never that simple, nothing goes as planned. Crunch, and really everybody in the crew, has side investments and personal considerations to tend to. For Crunch, this includes Lola and Interpol Agent Winters, a former associate. Lucky for us—and I won’t spoil how it all works out—writer/director Jonathan Sobol crafts a mental caper light on the excess. The beauty of this film is in Sobol’s steady direction. He allows the action to occur within the frame and with resolve rather than through over-the-top special effects and rapid-pace camera work. The Art of the Steal could easy suffer from overkill in a post-Guy Ritchie world, but Sobol chooses substance as his style, not over it, fleshing out a classic cinematic moral conundrum, the scruples of a thief. Crunch wants to be free of this bullshit, wants Lola at his side, his bike tuned by Francie, and to land his jumps without having to crash for the cash. As Crunch professes with disgust in Nicky’s face “I bought into that horse shit,” into the thieves' code of honor and remains torn between he loyalties and weaknesses, embodied by Nicky.
The Art of the Steal is excellent heist fare, more caper film than over-the-top, explosive-action medley. Sobol works to establish characters with wit and an endearing sarcasm. Moreover, he begs a question about the state of action films in American theatres: Where did all the men go? How is it a cynically humored, cheap hood flick such as this goes without a U.S. theatrical release and limited press yet Stallone’s bozo-brimming Bullet to the Head not only plays on the big screen but gets a prime spot in heavy rotation on HBO? That film is a blight on both Stallone’s and director Walter Hill’s already spotty careers.
But Sobol, an up-and-comer with three titles under his belt, and Kurt Russell—to name just one class act in this flick—get no love. This is the kind of movie my father and I would have been at opening weekend (God rest his soul), it’s the kind of movie I want to eat a bucket of popcorn to. Yet, I got to hunt this down on the direct-to-video market. The problem with the film industry when it comes to men is they make movies they can drag their kids to. They’re all so full of huge explosions and cheap dramatics they fail to deliver on what most dudes in the theatre want—which The Art of the Steal has in spades—fights, laughs, thieves, and a pretty woman.