Heist films are nifty things, relying on strong forward momentum, a compelling score for the criminals to grab, and enough deceit to keep the viewer occupied until the heist actually goes down, and then beyond. “The Art of the Steal,” a delightfully small time caper, is damn enjoyable genre fair and will be a treat for all those who love heist films.
After being sent to a Warsaw prison as the fall-guy in his brothers operation, wheelman/stuntman Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) gets drawn back into the game with his old crew to steal the most valuable book ever printed. The crew is comprised of himself, his slick brother Nicky (Matt Dillon), his apprentice Frankie (Jay Baruchel), the French forger Guy (Chris Diamantopoulos) and the old coot Paddy (Kenneth Welsh). Crunch distrusts Nicky, for good reason, and soon the scams are piling upon each other, as they tend do in situations like this.
“Will you two stop throwing yer fists into one another?” “You know I hate how you phrase that.”
The best thing that “The Art of the Steal” has going for it is the not-too-dark tone that director Jonathan Sobol sets. It’s a much funnier movie than I had expected. The dialogue crackles along like it should, and every character is brimming with one liners. The extra doses of comedy do lead to some strange tonal shifts when things get serious in the climax, but it never gets too dark. Good old Jay Baruchel is to thank for most of the comedy, as he usually is. His character Frankie is permanently out of the loop, just a wrench jockey in way, way over his head, and Jay’s perpetual nervousness and befuddlement gets me right in the funny bone every time. Between “The Art of the Steal” and “This Is The End” he’s really coming into the role of the ‘straight-man’.
Thankfully Jay Baruchel isn’t left adrift in a cast of serious dramatic actors being serious. Everyone is having a good time on this film, which is especially evident if you stay after the first few credits to see a short gag reel. Even Matt Dillon, who isn’t normally known for his comedic chops, gets in several good laughs and keeps the brooding to a minimum. Jonathan Sobol manages to keep everyone in line, and no one overshadows the other and draws too much attention to themselves.
It is especially impressive to see such talent assembled in such a small, all-Canadian film. Even Terrance Stamp shows up as a former art thief who is now working for the law. Jay, Welsh, and Diamantopoulos are all Canadian, so it’s not too surprising to see them here, but getting Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon is quite an accomplishment. It’s a testament to how good the script is, and how much the actors like each other, that they all came on board for what I imagine is a tiny payday. Being a Canadian film, I really hope “The Art of the Steal” gets a much bigger release than just a handful of cinemas in Canada.
There is however one glaring flaw with “The Art of the Steal,” and it’s unfortunately a common one with a crime film like this. The camera lies. The film opens and closes with narration from Crunch, but it’s not from his point of view, as many scenes happen without him. Having the camera lie is a cop out, a cheap and easy way to explain the twist. If a film can keep the twist a secret until the end while showing you everything, that is impressive. But suddenly filling in blanks that you didn’t know were blanks isn’t being clever. If anything it’s the antithesis of being clever.
“Was I the only one who didn’t know?”
Nonetheless, that is really my only criticism of “The Art of the Steal.” It’s a big one to be sure, but it’s not a deal breaker. “The Art of the Steal” isn’t anything substantial, but it’s still a very slick and fun caper that provides a lot of laughs and smartly utilizes the ensemble cast. If that’s your sort of thing, you’ll have a blast.