With a cast as stacked as the one assembled by Canadian director Jonathan Sobol for his second feature, there’s no excuse for The Art of the Steal being as bland and lifeless as it ends up being. A comic heist caper that doesn’t have much heart and barely enough heisting, Sobol crafts a drab, plodding, and not altogether hilarious Guy Ritchie knock-off that revels in politeness instead of the nastier bits just beneath the surface.
Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) has recently been released from a Polish prison after taking the fall for his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) in an art theft that went south. Returning home, he takes a gig as a motorcycle stuntman willing to take dangerous dives for money, much to the chagrin of his concerned and faithful new assistant Francie (Jay Baruchel). After a thug comes looking for Nicky and a missing Seurat painting, Crunch gets drawn back into joining the old gang to steal the almost mythical Gutenberg printing of The Gospel According to James. An FBI stooge (Jason Jones) and his reluctant former master thief partner (Terence Stamp) are hot on their heels, but Crunch might have more to worry about if Nicky goes back to his old double crossing ways.
The problem here isn’t the cast or the material itself, which could have worked with maybe a couple more drafts before going in front of the camera. The whole affair comes with what looks like a nifty final twist on paper, but still doesn’t make a lot of sense. It makes the whole affair seem like more work that it was ultimately worth and it’s pretty anti-climactic, but it still could have worked with some gentle tweaking.
Sobol lucks into a cast that’s pretty much incapable of being bad at what they do, which goes just far enough to make viewers want to see what they’ll do next. Russell brings the same sort of weariness he’s been cultivating for a couple of decades now to his first leading role in what feels like ages, making Crunch a likeable, no bullshit hero. Dillon might not be stretching himself beyond giving the same performance he gives in every film, but it works as the slimy foil of the group. Chris Diamantopoulous and Kenneth Welsh get in a few good moments as the French art forger and smooth talking connections guy, respectively. Katheryn Winnick gets misused until the very end as Crunch’s potentially gold digging girlfriend, but at least the end explains her character well enough. The film, however, belongs to Baruchel, Stamp, and Jones who get the only genuinely hilarious scenes in the film. Watching Baruchel’s bumbling, but eager helper try to cross the US-Canadian border without anyone looking in the trunk of his car is beyond priceless. Jones and Stamp, on the other hand, have such a great chemistry that a spin-off of these two characters might have been a better idea.
The blame for the film’s ultimate failure sadly rests at the feet of Sobol, who delivers one of the dullest looking and most monotonously paced examples of the genre. Filmed in and around the already dreary and lifeless Niagara Falls, the film is so visually harsh and gray looking it almost hurts to watch. Every bit of colour and life has been drained from the production to a disturbing degree, and when the characters are supposed to be a bit larger than life, at times it feels like the setting is actively depressing the actors and causing them to be a lot more understated than they should be. The material and the setting feel out of place from each other.
What underlines the film’s stylistic problems even more is how Sobol employs the same sort of fast cutting, frenetic editing that made his previous outing (A Beginners Guide to Endings) a little more special despite not really being an action comedy. Now that he has made an action comedy, he rightfully chooses a style that should work, but instead delivers a poorly assembled final product with no life being breathed into it as a result of the chaotic editing. It hurts here far more than it helps, and the film’s obvious budget limitations aren’t doing anyone any favours.
The Art of the Steal is a film that people should want to like, but it goes out of its way to be visually and narratively off-putting. And yet, it’s easy to see why it attracted so many talented people to the production. The germ of a good idea is still there, but everything about it feels rushed to accommodate the schedules of those involved. A little more time and effort could have gone a long way. It’s more of a smash and grab than a cunning caper.