Director: Neil Jordan. UK-Fr-Ire. 2002. 108mins

A loose-limbed, shaggy dog reworking of 1955 French crime classic Bob Le Flambeur, The Good Thief (previously known as Double Down) is writer-director Neil Jordan's most enjoyable and commercial feature for several years. Subverting the conventions of the heist caper with sly humour and a freewheeling attitude to characterisation and coherency, Jordan is like a jazz master stamping his signature on familiar material with virtuoso improvisation and style to burn. A mesmerising, tour de force from Nick Nolte is the bedrock of a jaunty, chaotic entertainment that sophisticated audiences should find hard to resist.

If Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur was seen as the jocular antithesis of serious-minded thrillers like The Asphalt Jungle, then The Good Thief is a mischievous riposte to the slick mechanics of Ocean's 11. A junkie thief and inveterate gambler, Nolte's Bob is no smooth-cheeked charmer. A gravelly-voiced, shop-soiled anti-hero, he has a neat line in hardboiled philosophising and the instincts of a old-school gentleman. When he first meets teenage innocent Nadia (Kukhiandize) his instinct is to protect her rather than seduce her and there's an echo of Jordan's Mona Lisa and The Crying Game in the way their relationship develops.

Barely clinging to the wreckage of his life, Bob has almost reached the end of his luck when he is invited to plan an impossible heist on a Riviera casino. The prize is not the contents of the safe nor the fake Picassos and Cezannes that adorn the walls. The originals are held elsewhere and the cunning plan involves a double bluff of making everyone think they are about to raid the casino when their true activities are focused on the hidden paintings.

The logistics of the robbery are not the main draw in The Good Thief. Rather, the real attraction lies in the quirky characterisations, the bantering dialogue and the intricacies of the relationship between Bob and his crew, a sympathetic policeman Roger (Karyo) and Nadia. Nolte has a high old time as his character relishes the physical transformation from hopeless junkie to suave master criminal. He tosses off the muscular dialogue with aplomb and lends a twinkling, daredevil conviction to the view that you should 'always play the game to the limit and damn the consequences'.

It's a philosophy that Jordan has taken to heart, underlying the notion of double bluffs with everything from rival robberies to twin brothers as accomplices. The characters who swirl around Bob are sharply drawn and incisively played by everyone from Emir Kusturica's quixotic, guitar-strumming alarms expert to a Ralph Fiennes cameo as a seedy, vindictive art dealer. There's some of the snap of those old Bogart-Bacall exchanges in the dialogue, while Chris Menges does a wonderfully atmospheric job of conjuring up the seedy playground of the Riviera in steely blues and neon shadows. A fantastic soundtrack includes apt contributions from an eclectic mix of Leonard Cohen, Bono and Johnny Hallyday.

Satisfyingly complex, the climax may be a little too cluttered and rushed for some tastes. There is also a slightly self-conscious air to some of the more obvious artistic touches, including the pointless decision to punctuate the action with brief, freeze frame moments. Still, these are modest criticisms of a very enjoyable divertissement that should draw a wide audience from thriller lovers, Jordan fans and anyone who relishes the sight of a raddled Nick Nolte at the top of his form.

Prod co: TNVO Sarl, Double Down Prods, Metropolitan Films
Int'l sales: Alliance Atlantis
Prods: Stephen Woolley, John Wells, Seaton McLean
Exec prods:
Kristin Harms, Neil Jordan, Thierry De Navacelle
Tracey Seaward
Neil Jordan
Chris Menges
Prod des:
Anthony Pratt
Tony Lawson
Elliot Goldenthal
Main cast:
Nick Nolte, Tcheky Karyo, Said Taghmaoui, Gerard Darmon, Emir Kusturica, Nutsa Kukhianidze, Ralph Fiennes