A film review by Craig J. Koban March 8, 2014 


2014, R, 90 mins.


Kurt Russell as Church Jay Baruchel as Francie  /  Matt Dillon as Nicky  /  Terrance Stamp as Samuel Jason Jones as Agent Bick


Written and directed by Jonathan Sobal 

THE ART OF THE STEAL is a new heist/caper flick that tries to get by on the breezy charm and appeal of its well-assembled group of actors.  Alas, for as good as they collectively are together, there’s no denying that the film ultimately comes off as a bit too derivative for its own good.  There’s simply too many regurgitated elements from too many grifter films of the past: the last proverbial job, the preparation of the con, the double crosses upon double crosses, and so forth.  It’s not that the material contained with THE ART OF THE STEAL is not modestly engaging; it’s just that we’ve seen it all before, and done more memorably.   

Yet, this cast though is relatively on top of their game.  Art thief and motorcycle daredevil Crunch Calhoun (gotta love that alliteration, played well by Kurt Russell) is introduced in the film being sent to prison for nearly six years when his half-brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) rats him out to the cops in order to save himself.  When Church does leave prison he demotes himself to doing petty stunt performances where he has to take a fall in order to get paid.  Just when he has hit rock bottom, Nicky emerges back into Church’s life in order to convince him to help him gather a team together to steal…the Gutenberg Bible (yes, that one).  Of course, with the sting of his brother’s betrayal still looming within him, Church initially balks at the job opportunity, but a mighty fine payday manages to coax him otherwise. 

Of course, as is the case with all heist films, Church is required to reunite the “old gang” that is comprised of his new apprentice Francie (Jay Baruchel) and girlfriend Lola (Katheryn Winnick).  Just as they begin forging ahead with their master plan to steal the prized Bible, Interpol Agent Bick (Jason Jones) and an informant/art consultant Samuel (Terrance Stamp) are hot on their heels and will stop at nothing to ensure that nothing illegal happens between the Canadian and American border.  To make matters worse for Church, he deals with the nagging issue of whether or not Nicky can truly be trusted during the course of the caper itself.  Nicky, of course, betrayed him once already…but could he do it again…or is the ultimate prize of the heist far bigger than any sibling rivalry or grudges? 



One thing that works heavily in THE ART OF THE STEAL’s favor is the presence of Kurt Russell and in particular the atypical kind of character that he inhabits in this genre film.  Church is as far removed from being a slick, well tailored, and intently confident Danny Ocean-esque conman; he's a man that knows his line of work and certainly is a professional at it, yet he sort of stumbles through the film from one awkward event to the next, which sort of humanizes the character and makes him more eccentrically appealing.  Russell is also a good actor at playing characters that balance street toughness with a goofy charisma, and you really gain a sense of the fun he is having leading the charge of the film's ensemble.  If anything, it’s kind of a welcome sight to see the aging Russell not playing a fully assured and confident leading man here.  His presence and delectable performance in the film is one of its sublime highlights. 

Evidently, any good heist film is only as good as its…heist...and THE ART OF THE STEAL does manage to have some fun in showcasing Church’s crew gather their wits and resources together to nab that highly sought-after book.  Of course, we get many twists and turns and ample misdirection along the way to keep viewers involved.  Writer/director Jonathan Sobal does manage to find just the right middle-ground tone for his film: It’s not quite solemn, not quite daft and silly, and he maintains a solid back-and-forth rhythm and dynamic between his characters that keeps things afloat.  The lively banter between all of these slick – but some not quite so slick - charlatans also lends to many of the film’s comic highlights.  

There’s one sequence in particular that’s a real unexpected standout: During it the film segues into a wonderful silent-era styled presentation with most of the main actors playing different period characters as the vignette relays what went on during an infamous theft of the Mona Lisa.  One of the singular pleasures of THE ART OF THE STEAL is how it manages to – in moments like this – go well against the grain of other similar genre pictures and try something wickedly novel.  The sequence illustrates the prime art of misdirection when it comes to pulling off a successful caper and helps to reiterate the film’s focus on its art-themed caper.  All in all, it’s nice to see a film that's willing to be a bit goofy and have fun with its own image.  

Yet, THE ART OF THE STEAL lacks more scenes of ingenuity like the aforementioned one.  That, and there’s a bit too much plot contained within its very short 90-plus minutes, which often resorts to multiple flashbacks and explanations to reinforce and remind viewers what has transpired (especially for those that may have drifted off while watching it).  The climax itself – which hopes to achieve a mighty big payoff – sort of ends on a whimper instead of a bang.  It certainly builds to the reasonable level of excitement in getting us to its conclusion, but by the time we get there and the motives of characters are revealed, there’s very little in the way of eye-popping surprises or revelations here.  Those in the audience that have been paying attention will also probably be able to deduce where its heading relatively early on.  THE ART OF THE STEAL, as a result, feels like it’s a script re-write or two away from becoming something successfully innovative and fresh.  

It’s too bad.  I really liked the actors here (Russell proves why he needs to be in more films than he has been lately, and supporting players like Baruchel give the film ample comic relief at most turns).  THE ART OF THE STEAL relishes in being engagingly peppy in just the right dosages (with a less game cast, the film may have been a total monotonous bore) and, for the most part, it’s never dull.  Alas, without a substantial payoff worthy of its fine performers and initially absorbing premise, it’s decidedly hard for me to recommend THE ART OF THE STEAL as anything beyond a somewhat agreeable time waster.  Worthy of a cheap rainy night rental?  Perhaps.  Worthy of an expensive night out at the cinema?  Not quite. 

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