Score, The: Brando, De Niro, Edward Norton

Despite a high-caliber cast, headed by three of the most accomplished actors working in American film, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, not many sparks fly in The Score, an extremely old-fashioned heist thriller that looks and sounds as if it were made in the 1960s or 1970s, during the heyday of this subgenre of crime pictures.

Usually associated with comedies and satires (most recently Bowfinger), Frank Oz proves to be the wrong director for making a stylish, fast-moving thriller out of a routine yarn that was reportedly rushed into production before the final script was ready to fit De Niro’s busy schedule. In today’s market, Paramount’s best marketing hook to elevate the visibility of its buddy crime-comedy is its eccentric and glamorous cast. In the long run, however, The Score will go into the annals of film history as a curiosity item and a missed opportunity to utilize better the gifts of three of the most respected (and feared) thesps of their respective generations.

The combined number of Oscar nominations and awards for Brando, De Niro, Norton, and Angela Bassett (who plays De Niro’s girlfriend) is close to two dozens, which may me the most notable aspect of this production. But they’re all cast in slender, undernourished roles, scripted by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith, that fail to challenge or ignite their undeniably huge talents.

In a role originally intended for Michael Douglas, De Niro stars as Nick, an aging thief trying to gracefully segue out of the burgling racket and settle down into domesticity with his longtime companion, Diane (Bassett). New focus in Nick’s life promises to be his legit business, a Montreal Jazz club. That is, until he gets pulled into one last heist by his eccentric mentor, financial partner, and friend, Max (Brando), who has other plans for him. The charismatic Max persuades Nick to violate his “code of ethics,” which consists of two basic rules: Always work alone, and never operate in the city where you live. Opportunity knocks when Max teams Nick up with Jack Teller (Norton), a young, aggressive, immature thief, who needs Nick’s safe-cracking talents to score his first big hit: a prize worth millions, locked behind the walls of Montreal’s Customs House.

For a while the story plays well the personality clashes among the central triangle: Nick and Max bicker and reconcile, then Nick and Jack argue and compromise, and so on. It also rehashes a staple theme of the Western genre: The need to pass the torch from one generation to the next, while also showing the subtler savviness and superior expertise of the elder characters their younger counterparts. Here, Nick is forced to partner up with a hotheaded upstart, who thinks he’s smarter than everybody else and hence refuses to take any advice.

Co-scripter Salem, better known for his HBO’s Don King: Only in America, wrote Max’s part specifically for Brando, as a cross between Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, a flamboyant, larger-than-life man, literally and figuratively. Considering his size, Brando is light on his feet, occasionally exuding a much needed charm, though, allegedly, only a handful of Brando’s ad libs made the final cut; hopefully, they’ll turn up in the DVD version.

But it’s de Niro who carries the burden of the picture on his solid shoulders with a role he can practically play in his sleep. One can only speculate how Michael Douglas would have interpreted the world-class thief, a role that could have used more elegance (in the manner of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief) than shown by
De Niro. As for Norton, he gets the showiest part–actually two parts–as the cocky Jack, and as a speech-impaired janitor in the Cutsoms House, which serves as his alibi and entry into the coveted place.

To Oz’s credit, the plot doesn’t cheat, showing each and every detail of the preparations for and execution of the heist. But this is also one of the movie’s weaknesses, exacerbated by a deliberate pacing that most viewers will find trying. Since the script was not ready, Oz asked the cast to perceive the shoot as a workshop, to improvise, work on the edge. “These guys don’t need things pulled out of them,” Oz proudly told a reporter, “in general, I sat back and made choices, as opposed to directing them.” It shows: Though intermittently entertaining, The Score is one of the most laid-back heist thrillers to have come out of Hollywood in quite some time.