Thief steals nothing but originals bliss

Nick Nolte shines in remake of 1955 film

In music, the key to remaking a classic song is to turn the cover into something wholly original Ñ for the artists to make it their own, a blending of their own style with that of the songwriter by taking a familiar refrain and reworking it in a fresh, unexpected way.

Filmmakers, however, seem to toss that wisdom out the window when making over old movies Ñ either re-creating the original without a whit of their own creative vision or going too far in the opposite direction and discarding pretty much everything except the film's title. The results are why most savvy filmgoers cringe when they hear that a beloved film has been subjected to a remake; we've all been burned by inept bastardizations of beloved movies, and it makes us mad as hell.

Yet sometimes Ñ thank heaven Ñ somebody does it right.

Neil Jordan's 'The Good Thief,' a retelling of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 'Bob le Flambeur,' is like a great jazzy remake of an elegant old song. The tune's the same, telling the tale of an aging American gambler (Nick Nolte) who agrees to take a chance on one last big casino heist. But with Jordan's sharp, assured direction and Nolte's degenerate swagger, the movie becomes something richer, retaining the elegance of the original with a dash of modern Žlan.

An old-world gentleman despite his convictions for theft Ñ not to mention his addiction to heroin and gambling Ñ Nolte's Bob Montagne is much loved by those around him. His best friend, Roger (TchŽky Karyo), is a cop who's less concerned with Bob getting away with robbery than with him getting caught again and sent back to prison. Bob's also adored with puppylike devotion by his young protŽgŽ, Paulo (Sa•d Taghmaoui), and by Anna (Nutsa Kukhianidze), the sullen, sexy young prostitute who Bob rescues from the streets.

Jordan's script is complicated but easy to follow, touching on a repeated theme of doubles. There are two robberies, one a fake to cover for the real one; what the thieves are after is a cache of paintings, whose reproductions are hanging in the casino while the originals are stashed in a vault. There's also double lives, characters who mirror each other and even a pair of identical casino workers (director Michael Polish and his brother, Mark).

Shambling through it all like a great rumpled bear is Nolte, who's never been better than he is here. Indeed, it's hard to imagine an actor who could have played Bob better Ñ Nolte's still-handsome face shows the ravages of a life perhaps too fully lived, and his deep, rumbling voice bespeaks countless nights of booze, broads and cigarettes. Yet there's a grace to Nolte as well, a shabby elegance and a gleam in his eye that makes him as lovable as he is ravaged. It's a magnificent performance, and any other actor (one who hadn't had as many public difficulties as Nolte has had of late, that is) would be generating Oscar buzz right now.

Jordan, like a great jazz musician, has tinkered with a variety of styles Ñ from the costume drama ('The End of the Affair') to the epic saga ('Michael Collins') to the blockbuster adaptation ('Interview With a Vampire'). With 'The Good Thief' he's back in the same groove as his two very best films, 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Crying Game' Ñ and the music is pure magic.