Monday, June 18, 2012

A tale of two Italian Jobs

Hang on, lads, I’ve had a great idea: let’s compare Peter Collinson’s 1969 Cock-er-nee crime caper with F Gary Gray’s Stateside remake.


What’s it all about?
The original starts with Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) getting out of prison, a job in Italy all nicely lined up for him. Unfortunately, his contact has met with a nasty accident courtesy of the Mafia who figure said job – the wholesale theft of several million in gold bullion – as a nice little earner for themselves. Still eager to pull off the heist, Charlie turns to upper class crime boss Mr Bridger (Noel Coward) – who runs his felonious empire from inside a prison cell (albeit a nicely appointed one) – for backing. Under Bridger’s aegis, Charlie puts together a team. They plan the heist meticulously then head to Turin. With the city crowded for an England vs Italy football match, and with Mafia supremo Altabani (Raf Vallone) on their case, the pressure is on to intercept the gold and make a clean getaway.

The remake starts in Venice as veteran safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) undertakes the proverbial one last job before handing the operation over to his protégé Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg). The heist goes smoothly and the getaway equally so … until one of Bridger’s team – Steve (Ed Norton) – double-crosses them, shoots Bridger, leaves the others for dead and absconds with the gold. A year later, in Philadelphia, Charlie gets a lead on Steve, who is fencing the gold a bar at a time. Charlie and the team join forces with Bridger’s daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) – who’s as much of a dab hand at opening safes as her old man but has thus far been putting her talents to legitimate use – and track Steve to California where they set out to steal back the gold from under his nose.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Collinson’s film is an evergreen classic while Gray’s is just another tired remake emblematic of Hollywood’s lack of originality. But we don’t do conventional here at Agitation. And we’re not renowned for doing wisdom either. So let’s put both movies on the starting blocks and see which pulls away faster, corners better and blasts past the chequered flag first.


Best guv’nor
Michael Caine – exudes 60s cool; gets to say “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”

Mark Wahlberg – does an okay job; ain’t no Michael Caine.

WINNER: the original.

Best crew
Caine’s crew are a fairly anonymous bunch who are generally only there for comic relief. Perhaps the most famous face is Benny Hill. Let us never forget that the original ‘Italian Job’ is a film where Benny Hill gets third billing.

Wahlberg’s crew consists of Seth Green, Mos Def, Jason Statham and Charlize Theron. Green and Def I can take or leave, but when you’ve got The Stat on your team that means you’re serious.

WINNER: the remake.

Best plot Collinson’s film consists of: Charlie gets out of prison, pause for low-brow comedy, Charlie plans the job, pause for low-brow comedy, Charlie and the lads execute the job, pause while Benny Hill does some gurning, tyre-squealing getaway.

Gray’s film actually has a plot, as well as making an attempt at backstory and even tipping its hat in the direction of characterisation. Gor blimey, guv’nor!

WINNER: the remake.

Best heist
Caine and crew pull a very inelegant armoured car job before the real business of the stunt driving gets underway.

Wahlberg and his team pull two heists, and plan but are forced to avert another. Their heists are meticulously conceived and excitingly staged.

WINNER: the remake.

Best Mr Bridger Noel Coward mixes snobbery with menace and creates an unforgettably satirical character. His walk from cell to prison dining hall as his also-incarcerated minions cheer at the news of the successful heist is a show-stopper.

Donald Sutherland plays a character called Bridger.

WINNER: the original.


Best last scene
Caine and crew are left dangling over a precipice in a literal cliffhanger.

Wahlberg’s team celebrate a job well done as they leave town on a train.

WINNER: the original.

Best use of Italian locations The original depicts Turin as one big traffic jam and has some horribly stereotyped Italian characters; however, it earns the title ‘The Italian Job’ in way the remake doesn’t.

The remake gives us an evocative opening heist set in Venice, however the remaining hour and a quarter plays out in America.

WINNER? Let’s call it a draw.

Best music
Caine and his cohorts belt out a lusty tune about “the self-preservation society” as they abscond with the goods.

John Powell’s score ramps up the urgency and against-the-clock nature of the heists in the remake, but you’ll not find yourself humming it every time you see a Mini being driven above the speed limit.

WINNER: the original.

Best car chase
Twenty minutes of unsafe driving around, above and through the sewers of Turin.

Twenty minutes of unsafe driving around California and through its sewers and subway system. Oh, and there’s also a car vs helicopter set-piece.

WINNER? I’m almost tempted to declare this a draw, but for two things: (i) the business with the Minis is the only reason, if we’re being perfectly honest, to watch either version and Collinson’s film did it first; (ii) the Minis in the remake were retro-styled by BMW, while the Minis in the original are … well … the original!

Sexiest endorsement of the Mini
Charlize Theron drives one in the remake. No point even debating this one. WINNER: the remake.

Based on ten criteria, Peter Collinson’s film scores five, F Gary Gray’s scores four, and they tie in one category. The kudos, then, should go to the original, but having watched them back-to-back I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I find the remake more satisfying in its script, direction and craftsmanship. The original, however, has the eminently quotable “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” line, an unforgettable final scene and, in the final analysis, captures a cultural and national zeitgeist in a way the remake doesn’t … and, in fact, couldn’t. Let’s face it: does the sight of a group of Americans pulling a getaway in an American city at the wheels of three British-made cars with, respectively, red, white and blue paint jobs actually mean anything, let alone what it means in the original? F Gary Gray earns a raised glass and a tip of the chapeau for turning in the better example of filmmaking, but ultimately Peter Collinson’s film, for all its flaws, achieves something genuinely iconic.

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