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Of heists and men

Two very different caper films offer charms distinct and dubious

You know what they say: Never send a boy to do a man's job. And it's hard to find better proof than that offered by two caper movies opening this weekend.

'The Italian Job' is a remake of a mediocre 1969 Michael Caine vehicle that scored only with car buffs who loved the elaborate chases, in spite of a supporting cast that included both Noel Coward and Benny Hill (a comic yin and yang if ever there was). It stars Mark Wahlberg, who apparently is going to keep doing remakes until he gets one right, as a thief out to steal back some gold that was stolen from him by slimy partner Edward Norton.

If, as we suggested in these pages a few weeks back, it's nearly impossible to totally botch a caper movie, director F. Gary Gray ('A Man Apart') nearly achieves the impossible. The action is generic stuff, unable to sneak by its lack of credibility with noise and a high-gloss shine. Even glossier is safecracker Charlize Theron, who looks ready to play the painted girl in a remake of 'Goldfinger.' As for Wahlberg, well, if it's an underwear ad, he's a star; but if it's a movie, he's a guy in a movie. Norton reportedly did the film to fulfill a contractual obligation to the studio. You have no such obligation to see it.

See instead 'Le Cercle Rouge,' the American premiere of a 1970 classic from French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville. With films such as 'Bob le Flambeur' (recently remade as 'The Good Thief'), 'Le Doulos' and 'Le Samourai,' Melville reinterpreted the American crime films he loved and in turn influenced future filmmakers. There is, for example, a direct line from Melville and Alain Delon to John Woo (who sponsored this revival) and Chow Yun-Fat to 'The Matrix' and Keanu Reeves.

With 'Rouge,' his penultimate film, Melville created what is at once a model thriller and a meditation on noir iconography. This tale of a manhunt for escaped fugitive Gian Maria Volonte (of Sergio Leone's first two 'Dollars' Westerns), intersecting with a jewel heist involving ex-con Delon and alcoholic ex-cop Yves Montand, plays like a chess game in which each archetypal character-piece has its own function and range of motion as ruled by fate.

With the deep inky hues of his color scheme, Melville's work is so austere in its adherence to noir tradition that the results approach abstraction. We are accustomed to taking cues from music and sound in films, so Melville creates tension through their absence (the central heist sequence is virtually silent, and includes a bit of sharpshooting Woo lifted for 'Hard Boiled'). The cross-generational match of the ultracool Delon with the weary gravity of Montand has an iconography of its own Ñ similar to, say, Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum at about the same time in Hollywood. The snappy casting is completed by French comic favorite Andre Bourvil as a dogged, cat-fancying police inspector.

Next to the steely expertise and elegant pleasures of Melville's master class in genre filmmaking, stuff like 'The Italian Job' looks even more like the bright but chaotic finger painting of preschoolers.