'The Good Thief'

Few things are more frustrating and disconcerting than unhappy films made by an indisputably talented team. Writer-director Neil Jordan's flashy but tiresome "The Good Thief," as loaded with pretension as it is atmosphere, is the latest dispiriting case in point.

A caper film set in Monte Carlo and the South of France, "The Good Thief" stars Nick Nolte as an old-and-in-the-way junkie gambler and master thief in need of a last hurrah. The film doesn't lack for the elements of success, but as so often happens with the heists themselves, nothing works out as planned. Jordan, whose notably eclectic career has included "The Crying Game," "Michael Collins" and "The End of the Affair," has made a lot of the right moves. The camerawork by the veteran Chris Menges is jazzy and atmospheric, and when it's combined with an eclectic soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen, Johnny Hallyday and the Chemical Brothers, the effects can be hallucinogenic.

"The Good Thief" also has impeccable source material. It's loosely based on the 1955 French classic "Bob Le Flambeur," which was directed by one of the great masters of hyper-cool crime melodramas, Jean-Pierre Melville, who changed his last name to reflect his passion for things American and whose "Le Cercle Rouge" has just been re-released.

Promising as it seems in theory, everything in this new version, like Lena Lamont's image in "Singin' In the Rain," falls apart as soon as the talking starts. The problem is unconvincingly romanticized dialogue joined to artificial delivery.

Everyone from Nolte's Bob Montagnet on down can't help but trip over the film's fake-hip, pleased-with-itself banter. It's a painfully artificial world drowning in world-weary cynicism, where attitude easily wins out over heroin as the hipster's drug of choice.

While Melville and his characters (including the original, imperturbable Bob) always knew that cool meant not looking like you're trying too hard, the individuals in "The Good Thief" put way too much effort into attempting to appear effortless. The film overplays its hand, self-consciously pushing artifice past the point of phoniness, a situation not helped by the stunt casting of directors Emir Kusturica and Mark and Mike Polish in key roles.

Biggest offender in this department is star Nolte, who's been encouraged to blowzily overact in a way that is almost painful. With his trademark whisky voice sounding close to whiny, Nolte's Bob affects a strained casualness that couldn't be less convincing. Though Bob may seem like a double-addicted loser, content to fritter his life away gambling and scoring drugs in the back rooms of Nice's grungier boîtes, just a glimpse of teen-aged Anne (Georgian actress Nutsa Kukhianidze) turns him into a Galahad in shopworn armor.

This young Russian refugee, not as savvy as she imagines (isn't that always the case), is in danger of stumbling into the evils of prostitution before Bob takes her under his wing. He claims no romantic interest in this pouty nymphet despite her declaration that "you look good for a man your age," but it's not hard to see where this is headed.

Bob also claims he's not interested in returning to a life of crime despite a reputation as "the best thief who ever lived," which is a relief to local cop Roger (Tcheky Karyo), who, like everyone else in the film, thinks Bob is a helluva guy.

But Bob, "out of dope and out of luck," can't help but be tempted by a heist plan that involves the Monte Carlo casino, a trove of Japanese-owned Impressionist paintings, a devious electronic genius played by Kusturica and a muscular thug now known as Phillipa after a lifetime spent as Phil.

Next comes an extended burst of planning and subterfuge, feints and twists, a raging torrent of spying, counter-spying, double-dealing and snitching that exhausts any possible interest anyone might have had into how this turns out. Bob and his pals may adhere to one of his innumerable mottos -- "always play the game to the limit ... damn the consequences" -- but this kind of puerile romanticism doesn't do anybody any good.

'The Good Thief'

MPAA rating: R, for language, sexuality, drug content and some violence

Times guidelines: Profanity, nudity and sexual situations and considerable drug use

Nick Nolte ... Bob
Tchéky Karyo ... Roger
Saïd Taghmaoui ... Paulo
Nutsa Kukhianidze ... Anne
Gérard Darmon ... Raoul
Marc Lavoine ... Remi

Alliance Atlantis presents, a Stephen Woolley./.John Wells./.Alliance Atlantis production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Neil Jordan. Producers Stephen Woolley, John Wells, Seaton Mclean. Executive producers Neil Jordan, Kristin Harms, Thierry De Navacelle. Screenplay Neil Jordan. Cinematographer Chris Menges. Editor Tony Lawson. Costume designer Penny Rose. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Anthony Pratt. Supervising art director Chris Seagers. Set decorators Robert Le Corre, Raoul Albert. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

In limited release.

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