A Beginner's Guide to Endings, action-comedies, art forgeries, art thefts, caper films, Chris Diamantopoulos, cinema, Crunch Calhoun, Evel Knievel, film reviews, films, heist films, Jason Jones, Jay Baruchel, Jonathan Sobol, Katheryn Winnick, Kenneth Welsh, Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Movies, Terrence Stamp, The Art of the Steal, vagina scupltures, voice-over narration, writer-director
From Snake Plissken to R.J. MacReady to Captain Ron, Stuntman Mike and Jack Burton, Kurt Russell has been responsible for some of the most iconic film characters over the past 30+ years. He’s an old-fashioned matinée action hero, a take-charge joker who’s goofy grin, ruggedly handsome looks and way with a quip have been bowling audiences over for decades. As someone who worshiped films like Escape From New York (1981) and The Thing (1982) while growing up, I learned pretty early on that Russell was capable of elevating anything, be it low-budget exploitation film or silly Disney movie. Over time, Russell became one of my favorite actors: I’ve seen plenty of films that I never would have were it not for Russell (the odious Tango and Cash (1989) immediately springs to mind, as does the old Disney film The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)) and most of his “classics” also rank among my favorite films. Simply put: Russell can do no wrong, in my book, which makes anything he’s in “must-see.” This leads us directly to this day’s offering, Jonathan Sobol’s The Art of the Steal (2013). How’s ol’ Kurt hold up? Do you really have to ask?
We begin with Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) beginning a seven-year sentence in a suitably awful Warsaw prison before jumping back a little to see the botched heist that put him there. It seems that Crunch was involved in a “can’t miss” art theft that ends up missing spectacularly after he’s sold up the river by his own half-brother, the irredeemably slimy Nicky (Matt Dillon). Fast-forward 5.5 years (he was obviously a well-behaved prisoner) and Crunch is once again a free man, making his living as a stunt motorcycle rider who throws events for extra cash. This doesn’t sit well with his best-friend/assistant, Francie (Jay Baruchel), who knows that Crunch is capable of much more. Crunch’s constant injuries don’t bother his greedy girlfriend, Lola (Katheryn Winnick). however, who just wants Crunch to keep her in the lifestyle to which she wholeheartedly believes she’s owed.
As luck would have it, Crunch ends up back in Nicky’s orbit after he’s roughed up by another of Nicky’s double-crossed partners, Sunny (Dax Ravina), a dumbass who threatens poor Crunch with an antique pirate’s pistol. When Crunch goes to yell at Nicky, he discovers that Nicky is planning another big heist, a complicated theft that also involves Crunch’s old pals Paddy (Kenneth Welsh) and Guy (Chris Diamantopoulos). Since Lola keeps demanding more and more money from Crunch, he reluctantly agrees to join the heist, Francie in tow. While this is going on, one of the gang’s former compatriots, Sam Winter (Terrence Stamp), has been forced into the informant game by oily Interpol agent Bick (Jason Jones). Bick wants Sam’s help in taking down Nicky and his gang, while all that Sam wants is the chance to finally retire and get out of the game once and for all. All of these friends, enemies and turncoats end up colliding in an uproarious caper that involves the second book ever printed on the Guttenberg press, a giant vagina sculpture, a fake priest and Francie dressed up like an Amish man. Through it all, however, one question remains: has Nicky mended his treacherous ways or is there a more devious plot going on? Old habits may die hard but you can’t keep a good Crunch down.
The Art of the Steal, for lack of a better word, is a minor gem, an absolutely hilarious, break-neck-paced, character-driven action film that’s sent into the stratosphere by the deadly combination of a fantastic script and a wonderful ensemble cast. There are so many genuinely funny set-pieces and great bits of dialogue that the film is an absolute joy to watch. When a film is glutted with this much good stuff, it’s hard to pick out my favorites but there’s plenty that stands out: the antagonistic relationship between Bick and Sam…Francie trying to cross the border dressed like he’s Amish (after explaining that he’s involved in a stage version of Witness, Franchie is asked if he has anything to declare: “The play is terrible,” he quips back)…the giant vagina sculpture that factors heavily into the caper…Diamantopoulos’ ridiculously fussy art-forger Guy, who’s more interested in his own abilities than fooling people with his forgeries…the list goes on and on. Writer-director Sobol seems equally gifted whether penning dialogue or scenarios, something that not all comedic writers excel at: the script is actually good enough that it would have been a pretty decent film without the cast. But, oh boy…that cast…
Sobol’s film is gifted with one of the most dynamic, well-matched ensemble casts that I’ve seen in some time. Russell is predicatably awesome as Crunch, a sort of low-rent, self-defeated Evel Knievel but the rest of the cast are no slouches: Dillon brings just the right amount of “nice-guy” to his sleazeball character, while Welsh, Diamantopoulos and Baruchel are perfectly cast as the remainder of the gang (Baruchel, in particular, is great). Stamp brings just the right amount of gravitas to his performance as Sam, perhaps giving us a peek into the “retired” life of some of his more famous gangster characters, and plays well against the simpering stupidity that is Jones’ Interpol agent. There’s a great bit where Sam tells Bick that he wouldn’t recognize a vagina if it were 4 feet tall and staring him in the face: later, Bick comes face-to-face with the vagina sculpture and his confounded “What’s that?” has to be one of the best moments in the film.
From a craft standpoint, Sobol uses a bit of a “kitchen-sink approach,” ala Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998): lots of on-screen text descriptors, multiple voice overs and perspectives, dates/times defined for everything. While it may all seem a bit much, it actually works spectacularly well with the complicated storyline. The heists, particularly the final one, are all immaculately plotted, which is a real sink-or-swim moments for caper films. Not only are they kinetic, visually interesting and well-plotted but the heists actually make sense: I’m not saying that any of this would be possible but I’ll be damned if Sobol doesn’t make it all seem rather likely.
Sobol was also responsible for the above-average A Beginner’s Guide to Endings (2010), so this is clearly one writer-director to keep a close eye on. At the end of the day, The Art of the Steal isn’t just a great Kurt Russell film: it’s a great film, period. With a witty, thorny script, plenty of great set-pieces, a superb ensemble cast and loads of laughs, The Art of the Steal is a modern classic. Looks like Crunch Calhoun gets to join that “Kurt Russell Character Hall of Fame”: I’m betting that he gets along just fine with Snake, A.J. and the rest of the guys.