More and more movies are shot in Canada, whether for the low costs, the proficient crews or the pretty locations. Yet our cities are nearly always made to double for others. For instance, I’ve seen my Montreal be passed as Atlantic City (“Snake Eyes”), Baltimore (“The Sum of all Fears”), New York (“The Bone Collector”), various European cities, even as a post-apocalyptic wasteland (“Battlefield: Earth”)! So it’s nice to watch a movie like “The Score” which uses my city as herself. As in last year’s “The Whole Nine Yards” (which also acknowledged where it was shot), Montreal is presented as the ideal hideaway for Yankee criminals. It’s out of the US, but not too far out. It’s urban but not filthy, the rents are low, the women are hot, and you’re sure to meet plenty of friendly people, French, English or otherwise.
As Max, the quirky stolen antics and jewels trafficker played by Marlon Brando puts it, “You still in the US, you still in Europe, you live in Montreal”. That advice was followed by Max’ lifelong friend and partner Nick (Robert De Niro), an Old Montreal jazz club owner who moonlights as a high-rent thief. If there’s something valuable to be snatched from an impossible-to-open sage, he’s your man. “If someone built it, someone can unbuild it.” Yet as skilled as Nick is and as lucrative as Max’ scores are, he’s decided to quit the dirty business to settle down with his stewardess girlfriend Diane (Angela Bassett).
Of course, he’s let himself be convinced to do one last job, even though it’s riskier than anything he’s pulled before. The target? A priceless 17th century royal sceptre. Finder’s fee? A whopping 6 million dollars. The hitch? The piece is stored in the basement of the Montreal Customs House, right in Nick’s backyard, where he’s most vulnerable. Plus he has to team up with Jack (Edward Norton), a cocky young hotshot who gained entry into the building as a mentally challenged assistant janitor and who’s mapped up the heist. Can this score be executed ? Can Jack be trusted? Pom, pom, pom…
“The Score” was directed by Frank Oz, best known as the Muppeteer behind Miss Piggy and Yoda and as the director of hit comedies like “In & Out” and “Bowfinger”. Not quite the guy you’d expect to helm an old fashioned heist flick, but he proves himself as good as the next guy at handling suspense. He’s no Hitchcock, he’s not even a De Palma, but I figured I’d put him in Clint Eastwood’s league as I watched this tight, moody picture with its strong set pieces, killer jazz soundtrack and superior acting. That last one’s a given, though. How can you go wrong when each of your leads is the best actor of his respective generation? Brando, of course, has had a huge influence on contemporary movie acting. He might have become a grotesque, obscenely fat caricature of his old self, but he can still hold his own on screen. He’s got a rather small role, but he makes it somehow fascinating with his odd body language, small eccentricities and his impeccable French.
As for De Niro (who won an Academy Award for portraying a young Brando in “The Godfather part 2”), I can’t say that he impressed me. He’s good, sure, but from a guy who can be riveting, good is a letdown. The no-bullshit aging professional crook is hardly a stretch for him, and he doesn’t do anything new with it, he’s mostly frowning and being a hard ass. He also has more tender scene with Bassett, but they’re few and far between and not all that necessary to the plot. Nice work, but no cigar. That Cuban baby is reserved for Ed Norton, who blows De Niro off the screen. Sure, he too has done better work, sometimes with similar characters: he’s switched between different personalities in both “Primal Fear” (which got him an Oscar nod) and “Fight Club” (which should have earned him another), and the arrogance of his Jack here somehow reminds of his Worm in “Rounders”. Even then, there’s an energy to Norton’s acting which sells the conventional material.
There might not be anything original in “The Score”, but as by-the-numbers thrillers go, this is one of the better ones. Sure, everything is familiar : there are safes to be cracked, guards to distract, security systems to hack into, ceilings to rope down from… Even the eventual double-crossings are predictable from miles ahead. Then again, Oz’ direction is confident enough to make all the old clichés involving anyways, and that one big heist scene at the end kept me on the edge of my seat. Add that to Howard Shore’s jazzy score, Norton’s always compelling presence and the caring use of Montreal locations and you’ve got yourself an enjoyable little movie.