An art heist gone wrong lands ageing thief Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) in a tough Polish prison when he is betrayed by his untrustworthy brother Nicky (Matt Dillon). Five years later he is out of jail and ekes out a living as a third-rate motorcycle daredevil aided by his loyal apprentice Francis (Jay Baruchel) and much younger but far shrewder girlfriend Lola (Katheryn Winnick). When Crunch gets attacked by an angry thug over a misunderstanding, he realizes Nicky is back in town and planning an even bigger heist. Against his better judgement, Crunch brings Francis and Lola into a scheme reuniting his original team, including wily Uncle Paddy (Kenneth Welsh) and French art forger Guy de Cornet (Chris Diamantopoulos), to steal a priceless historical book. However, not only has hot-tempered Interpol Agent Brick (Jason Jones) enlisted imprisoned art thief Samuel Winter (Terence Stamp) to help catch them in the act but it becomes clear there is more to this scam than meets the eye.
Heist movies, of the more fanciful than grittier variety, enjoyed a major revival in the wake of the huge global success of Steven Soderbergh's superior remake of Ocean's Eleven (2001). Having said that let's give the devil his due and admit Guy Ritchie played a big part in re-popularizing the genre. Since then heist movies lapsed into endlessly replaying the same familiar clichés to the point where television shows like the British-made Hustle and the American Leverage get away with rehashing the same basic plot every week. For his second feature film following A Beginner's Guide to Endings (2010), a comedy-drama with J.K. Simmons and Harvey Keitel, Canadian writer-director Jonathan Sobel ticks all the heist movie boxes without trying anything radically new. But as far as box-ticking goes, The Art of the Steal is handsomely crafted and solidly entertaining, bolstered by the lively playing of a strong ensemble cast and Sobel's assured visual sense.
“The real currency in the world ain't money, it's trust. If you've got no trust, what have you got?” ponders our splendidly named anti-hero Crunch Calhoun in his opening monologue. Never afraid to play the lovable loser or act his age, Kurt Russell invests a disarming degree of pathos in his portrayal of the bruised, battered but still bold stunt cyclist dreaming of one last big score. Crunch signs up for Nicky's audacious scam not because he wants the money but because his life's ambition was to make history. He wants to know his life has been worthwhile. Although Sobel fumbles the ambiguous suspense of whether Lola is also playing Crunch for a sucker, which ought to underline the central theme, the film gains a layer of poignancy through its depiction of old men full of regret and broken dreams. At one point Terence Stamp, priceless as world-weary police informant Winter, delivers a moving monologue about the allure of art. It is one of several charming character touches that compensate for the odd incidental flaw.
Sobel's lively script has all the fast patter and grifter lingo familiar from a dozen other movies and TV shows. All the familiar heist movie elements are accounted for: the team of misfits with special skills, the elaborate plan that seems certain to fail, the split screen detailing multiple actions simultaneously, the post-heist run of double and triple-crosses. Yet Sobel adds a few idiosyncratic flourishes including a bike chase through the subway in a nod to Diva (1981), the amusing use of a giant vaginal-shaped sculpture as a Trojan Horse and Francis' hapless attempt to sneak across the border with two wanted criminals hiding in his car which ends with him discussing the merits of Predator 2 (1990) with the border guard! Perhaps the standout sequence is a flashback story-within-a-story about the theft of the Mona Lisa done in the style of an old silent movie complete with Georges Méliès style flourishes and the cast playing different roles. Performances are engaging across the board with Russell and Dillon (so crooked he lifts a wallet off a nine year old girl in broad daylight!) equally charismatic. In a decidedly male-centric film Kathryn Winnick is sadly underused by comparison with the opportunities Jay Baruchel, Jason Jones and Chris Diamantopoulos have to etch likeable comic characters. If the climax is less mind-blowing than the filmmakers think it is still a fun ride getting there. Lovable rogues, snappy dialogue, pacy action, Katheryn Winnick in a Vegas showgirl outfit. Good times.