“The Art of the Steal” isn’t just the name of Jonathan Sobol’s sophomore effort; it’s virtually a genre unto itself, thanks to countless movies about low-level con artists, their team of accomplices and the victims/ adversaries they’re trying to outwit. But even if the film doesn’t raze genre conventions or reinvent the notion of grifting as audiences know it, Sobol creates an ensemble as scruffy and indefatigably appealing as its star, Kurt Russell, as he shuffles dexterously through a heist scenario just implausible and charming enough to be convincing.
Russell plays Crunch Calhoun, a stuntman and motorcycle daredevil who gets paid more to fall off of bikes than he does to land them safely. Supported by his girlfriend Lola (Katheryn Winnick) and would-be “apprentice” Francie (Jay Baruchel), Crunch descends into nostalgia, waxing rhapsodic about a job to be remembered for. But after his errant brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) turns up offering him an opportunity to pull one last, very lucrative score, Crunch reassembles his team of thieves and starts hatching a plan.
Soon, Crunch is reunited with Guy (Chris Diamantopolous), an expert forger, and Uncle Paddy (Kenneth Welsh), the guy who always knows who to call. But when an overzealous FBI agent named Bick (Jason Jones) recruits a former thief named Samuel Winter (Terence Stamp) to help him stop the theft, Crunch finds danger mounting around a epic heist that could mean a world-class payday – that is, if he lives long enough to spend it.
Sobol opens “Art of the Steal” with Crunch being unceremoniously shepherded to his cell in a Russian prison, an unappealing fate that underscores the perils of his so-complicated-they-seem-simple plans. At the same time, he pairs it with voiceover by Crunch that sets a tone for the film – namely, that there are stakes, but we’re not going to tread too heavily on the repercussions if these characters aren’t able to pull off a job. Steven Soderbergh practically made this tone Hollywood boilerplate with “Ocean’s Eleven,” at least in terms of modern conman movies, and paired with a David Holmes-style funk-rock soundtrack, audiences know to expect this will never get too serious for them to handle.
But Russell is the anchor of the film, and he plays Crunch as if he’s more or less literally an echo of the characters the accomplished actor has played in the past. From Jack Burton in “Big Trouble in Little China”’ to Stuntman Mike of “Death Proof,” there are grace notes of a self-assuredness that the character once had, but here, Russell pairs that with a slight sadness, or an ambivalent concession to the fact that life simply beat him down from whatever aspirations he once had. Juxtaposing a long-forgotten strength with his current acquiescence to defeat, Russell offers Crunch a humble sort of charm that belies his always-exciting screen presence, and reminds audiences why he’s not just a genre fan’s icon, but a truly terrific actor.
Baruchel, meanwhile, offers a similar sort of wide-eyed naivete as Francie, and mostly serves as audience proxy once the machinery of the plan starts spinning out of control. As Nicky, Dillon manages to be sort of charmingly unapologetic about his misdeeds, and the movie mines some rewarding tension from the uncertainty of whether or not the character will betray his brother. But Stamp, as an aging thief and forger ambivalent about helping the authorities, and especially Jones’ Bick, brings a quiet gravitas to a minor role that gives the film an emotional timeline that extends far past its beginning and end.
Suffice it to say there isn’t a lot of new territory covered here, but Sobol skillfully engages in speculation of how the plan will work, if it will work, and whether or not these characters will live up to the personalities that supposedly define them. And remarkably, without betraying the viewer’s understanding or expectations, he unveils the larger design of Crunch’s ambitions, examines how those ambitions impact his life as a whole, and manages to do so while keeping the pace brisk and the tone fun. In other words, “The Art of the Steal” won’t trick audiences into thinking they’ve seen anything new, but it’s just clever enough to keep them distracted from realizing that they haven’t. [B-]