While I enjoy a lot of foreign film, I can appreciate that many viewers don't want to read when they watch a movie. I'm more accepting of those since remaking it in English exposes the film to an audience that wouldn't get the story at all otherwise. Rarely does a remake improve on the original, after all, if the original hadn't already received a lot of attention in spite of language barriers, it would never have been picked for a new version. Sometimes, however a remake can stand on it's own very well. The best are like wonderful covers of original songs, bringing a new interpretation to an old classic.
"The Good Thief" is certainly in that category. The film is a remake of Melville's hugely influential crime classic "Bob LeFlambeur." (Bob, the Gambler) It's directed by Neil Jordan, whose suitability for crime films was obvious in his own classic "Mona Lisa." Jordan doesn't go too far from the original story but adds some updates here and there. It all hinges on Nick Nolte's portrayal of Bob Motagnet, an retired criminal who has served his time, and is now content spending his days on gambling and heroin. For a junkie, Bob is remarkably well liked, and a fixture in his community. He even has a nice friendship with Roger (Tchéky Karyo,) the cop who put him away. Bob has been around the block and has nothing to prove anymore. He's helpful, well mannered and not easily shocked. He's also idolized by Paulo (Said Taghmaoui) a young guy who anyone can see wants nothing more than to figure out how to be Bob, although he doesn't grasp that Bob has a code of his own. We see Bob's sensibilities at work when he intervenes in the arrangement between a prostitute, Anna (Nutsa Kukhianidze) and her pimp, picking a fight as a distraction to lift her passport from the pimp. Anna is grateful and also fascinated by Bob, but he has little interest in a relationship and all but presents her to Paulo. She goes along with it, but sees Paulo as little more then a Bob knock off.
His retirement is interrupted when an old friend informs him of a high profit idea for a heist. A new casino has decided to use very high priced art for decor to attract an upscale clientele. Rather than hang the actual paintings in the casino however, they hang good quality fakes which are backed by the originals in a high security private vault. Being familiar with how a heist works, they decide to let the word get out about it. Bob will go to the casino and gamble, as his reputation will draw all eyes to him, while the heist crew with help from an inside man, sneaks in and takes the paintings. There's too much money in the heist for Bob to refuse. He locks himself in his room ad kicks his heroin habit cold turkey in preparation. He sells a fake Picasso painting to a local crime figure to make some money to outfit the heist.
As you'd expect, the heist doesn't go according to plan. Paulo can't help but reveal some private details to Anna in his attempt to be as impressive as Bob. These details are soon picked up by someone else, a police snitch who sleeps with Anna. When Paulo realizes what has happened, he takes out his anger on both Anna and the snitch (although only after the snitch has told Roger the details) Bob sends Paulo out of town, as he's now wanted for murder. Roger soon gets details of the plan and has a team move in, on the crew while Bob gambles at the tables, with Anna at his side. Despite all of their planning they can't account for everything, including Bob's incredible luck at the tables.
"The Good Thief" is a heist film, that doesn't really care about the heist. That's just the excuse to put Bob into action. Nolte creates an incredibly compelling character, that doesn't care about the law much, but is very concerned about decency. Despite his particular sense of moral obligation, he isn't at all naive. This is a guy who counts on being let down and betrayed by his best friends, yet he does't become bitter. It's possible that it's the pull between this knowledge and his own code that lead him to seeking out his heroin, his coping mechanism for a very unrealistic situation. He intervenes when a man in danger of deportation is about to shoot Roger the cop. This intervention makes the man a snitch for Roger, he sets aside his loyalty to Bob to keep his own status safe. Paulo, who Bob treats as a protege, is unable to control his temper and this also presents an obstacle to Bob's plans. Regardless, he keeps going, playing his own part. I can't imagine anyone else portraying the laid back weariness like Nolte does here. His character communicates both how low he has fallen and the charm that makes everyone like him.We believe Roger's reluctance when he talks about trying to catch Bob at his latest heist, and says "That's part of the problem. Everyone likes him."
Although it all occurs around the framework of the original "Bob LeFlambeur," Jordan takes the structure and tweaks it to make it his own. This Bob is a junkie while the original wasn't but it makes sense within the character. The technology and the music are updated to reflect their times, and the switch from Black and White to color is embraced. Although there is still a grittiness to the world, it's a bright one. The film also points at it's own remake status, being largely concerned with fakery; fake paintings, fake heists, even Paulo, the fake Bob, not to mention Bob's own storytelling talents. He's fond of pointing out Picasso as the greatest thief of all. Bob is a failure and he knows it, but it isn't the most important thing. After the heist at the end he tells Roger, "It isn't about winning or losing. It's about attitude." It's important to Bob that he do both gracefully. He's very good at losing that way but to have a chance to practice this attitude at winning is as much a shock to him as anyone. Another interesting change is the relationship between Bob and Anne, which here allows Bob to be more of a father/mentor figure than romantic interest. Nutsa Kukhianidze plays her as unpredictable, a character who hasn't quite been around the whole block yet but feels like it, and thanks to Bob, just realizes she has a few things to learn.
Yet "The Good Thief" is not an imitation of the original I'm sure that Neil Jordan had seen the original more than a few times. Perhaps he wondered why he couldn't have a film where Bob was just a little luckier, and found himself making that happen. He didn't want to make a flawless copy, but his own version of the story which rather than the film noir cautionary tale, where the loser pushes his luck until it's gone, we watch a few losers get unexpectedly rewarded. With this set up and these characters, a happy ending is far more surprising than a harsh one. Even Paulo, who perhaps doesn't deserve it, gets a happy ending because luck doesn't discriminate like we do. Whatever it uses from "Bob LeFlambeur," this version of Bob is certainly "the real thing" as Anne would say, less a remake than a variation on a theme.
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