Quentin Tarantino never pretended to be anything more than a Gen-X version of Martin Scorcese, but leave it up to Hollywood to ruin a good thing. In the latter half of the ’90s, the credibility of the gangster genre was diluted so badly that most audiences were left confused as to whether any given protagonist really wanted to rob the damn bank or just wanted to wax philosophical on the deeper meanings of Madonna lyrics.
At first glance, “The Score” does little to distinguish itself from these Johnny-come-latelys. A slumping, past-his-prime star paired with a slick-talking sidekick — haven’t we seen this before? “The Score” thankfully has enough self-awareness not to drown itself in a similar sea of stylized excess and trendy pop-culture quips. Robert DeNiro never quotes Bible passages and Edward Norton never mangles a cop’s ear. “The Score” simply plugs away at an even pace without a trace of pretentiousness. It does little to push the viewer away or draw him in, which is exactly what makes this middling caper flick an old-school breath of fresh air.
DeNiro (“Goodfellas”) plays Nick Wells, an aging thief contemplating retirement in order to spend more time with his girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett, “Waiting to Exhale”). However, Nick’s smarmy middle-man associate Max (Marlon Brando, “The Godfather”) asks Nick to pull off one final caper with cocky brigand Jack Teller (Norton, “American History X”). Jackie works under the guise of a handicapped janitor in a Montreal customs building that happens to house a priceless scepter. After attending to the negligible subplots of Max and Diane, the latter third of “The Score” features Nick and Jackie attempting to steal the scepter in one of the best heist scenes to hit theatres in recent years.
Much of the publicity for “The Score” boasts the best of three generations of actors. Director Frank Oz wisely takes the hint and allows DeNiro and Norton to run the show, restricting the increasingly-difficult-to-work-with Brando (who dresses and acts uncannily like a “Touch of Evil”-era Orson Welles) to an extended cameo. While it seems like DeNiro has skillfully been playing the same aging thief/cop/gangster for the past decade, the real energy of the film flows from Norton’s performance. One would’ve expected more from writers Lem Dobbs (“The Limey”) and Scott Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”), but the cast does the best they can with rather superficial characters and underwritten suspense — be sure to listen for the audience’s collective groan when Jackie reveals his motivations.
The film’s tagline, “There are no partners in crime,” unwittingly takes the twist out of the twist ending, so don’t expect any neo-noir acumen like those showcased in “The Usual Suspects” or the recent “Memento.” Rather, “The Score” reminds viewers of the post-studio system crime stories of the ’50s and early ’60s ?–a time when people like Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin reigned supreme. This is not to say that “The Score” is on the same level as these classics, but it’s refreshing to see a modern-day heist film sans deliberate cynicism and ’70s kitsch. While this does not make “The Score” an exceptional or even noteworthy movie, it does make for a thoroughly entertaining and appreciable piece of filmmaking.