The con movie has a little chequered history. Occasionally a film such as the Oceans Trilogy reinvigorates the genre and brings it to a new audience. These films tend to be extremely well made pieces of work. They have an idea of style and at their core, as with all good films, they are entertaining. From the success of these films, there are usually a slew of lesser films, in terms of budget, talent and ambition that try to cash in on the renewed interest. The Art Of The Steal is a film of the lesser variety.
What is obvious from the first frames is the stylistic choices that the film makes. These are taken from several other films. The early Tarantino movies as well as the aforementioned Oceans flicks appear to be the blueprint. With split screen, funky music and a larger than life group of characters the comparisons are all too evident to see. The impression you get is that these decisions were taken in order to hide the weaker elements of the film. Sadly this does not work out.
The principal premise of the plot is of the one last job variety. In an extended prologue, we are introduced to the principles and get the motivations that will inform the rest of the movie. The gang is in Warsaw carrying out an elaborate con in order to steal a piece of already stolen art while pretending to authenticate it. All goes well until they slip up at the last-minute and find themselves in police custody. Nicky (Matt Dillon) is the first to open up under questioning and lays the blame on his brother Crunch (Kurt Russell), the leader of the team. Crunch is left to rot in a Polish prison for five and a half years. When released he returns to real work as a motorcycle daredevil who occasionally takes money to deliberately crash adding a little excitement to his performances. When Nicky re-enters his life with a proposition to steal a priceless historical book, Crunch has to decide whether to put the past to one side in order to set himself and his former team up for the rest of their lives.
Of course with a con film, we are expecting a twist in the tale. This one is so formulaic that is does not disappoint in that department. The fact that we are already expecting it lessens the impact of the actual moment. What it also highlights is that the twist can fairly easily be worked out beforehand. We as an audience are given enough information to piece it all together. The clues are clumsily inserted into the script and it would have been more subtle if there was a flashing light behind the actors as they spoke the lines which said Remember this bit!!
The reasonable cast list gives you a false sense of security. You would expect at least one stand out performance from the leads. Unfortunately none of the main characters are sufficiently developed enough in order for an actor to be in a position to shine. It is telling that the stand out performance comes from Terence Stamp as an aging art thief who is paying off his debt to society by working for the FBI. He is on-screen for less than ten minutes and is extremely entertaining as the quick-witted but world-weary villain.
The rest of the cast are just going through the motions and it looks like a bit of a cash grab for them. Kurt Russel is normally a very watchable actor, but in this role he is clearly on autopilot. The film hinges on the the interplay and the relationship between him and Matt Dillon. Unfortunately neither seems very interested and there is little in the way of a spark between them. The relationship falls a bit flat and as a consequence the film follows suit.
The only really good points for the film are the direction and the locations. The film is very well put together and the scenes are directed with a sense of style and pace. Some of the style come from the variety of locations including Niagara Falls and Poland.
Overall a bit of a missed opportunity. With a better script and a less obvious story, the film could have been much better.