Neil Jordan and Nick Nolte pull off a twitchy Gallic heist.

The French Conniption 

Neil Jordan and Nick Nolte pull off a twitchy Gallic heist.

Imagine a large, dead Saint Bernard with its bones removed. Then visualize a hefty bellows inserted into it from behind, with a gorilla hopping up and down on it, causing the huge dog's baglike corpse to twitch spasmodically, wheeze and croak. Voila -- meet today's Nick Nolte. What's amazing is that even though he makes Chewbacca sound like Charlotte Church, Nolte's acting chops are sharper than ever. His charisma transforms Neil Jordan's The Good Thief from a vague, mildly exotic, character-driven caper flick to a soulful and engaging misadventure.

Loosely but lovingly based on the late Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 film Bob le Flambeur, Jordan's update is a study in grit and grace, a portrait not just of low-roller Bob Montagnet (Nolte) but of the environments that have shaped him -- and left him misshapen. In both films, Bob is no mere gambler; he's dangerously addicted to playing.

Unlike elegant, laconic Roger Duchesne in the original film, Nolte's Bob is a ragged powerhouse, a boundlessly self-fictionalizing chatterbox and junkie. When we first meet him in a skanky strip club, he's desperate for a fix yet still in command of the situation when friendly undercover cop Roger (Tcheky Karyo, The Core) nearly dies at the hands of a young Algerian punk who's terrified of being deported home. Bob and Roger aren't each other's guardian angels, but they're certainly not conventional adversaries. Their relationship offers a delectably subtle twist on the threadbare buddy motif.

Of course, this remake wouldn't fly without a sexier parallel relationship, and here we get dewy newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze as Anne, a sort-of stripper/almost-prostitute whom Bob takes under his aching wing. A recent import from Bosnia, Anne's a pretty mess, and Kukhianidze plays her like a soul sister to La Femme Nikita's Anne Parillaud.

Jordan keeps the plot pretty simple. Bob's old partner Raoul (French star Gerard Darmon of Diva and Betty Blue) suggests one last big score, hitting the Casino Riviera during Grand Prix, but not specifically for the cash. Rather, the Japanese owners have produced perfect counterfeits of their collection of priceless European art, and the originals are hidden nearby in a high-tech underground vault. Enter Bob's team, including techie headbanger Vladimer (Emir Kusturica), twin con-men (Mark and Mike Polish, Twin Falls Idaho) and a jaw-dropper of a transgender bodybuilder (Sarah Bridges) who happens to be terrified of spiders.

A cinema artist whose works range from deliriously weird (The Company of Wolves) to wickedly wonderful (The Butcher Boy), Jordan is himself addicted to unusual situations and spring-loaded dialogue. ("A good fake?" asks Ralph Fiennes here as a psychotic art dealer. "Isn't that a contradiction in terms: Good fake? Happy homosexual?") The director could no more make a pallid genre wanna-be like Heist or the Ocean's 11 remake than he could take on the South of France without dousing it in contempo-funk. Observed through the twitchy prism of Nolte, Thief offers a brilliant contrast to the original, concluding in a sensational cure for the shakes.

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