The cast list reads like an all-star episode of Inside the Actors’ Studio. Marlon Brando was the greatest screen actor of his generation. Robert DeNiro was “the next Brando.” And Edward Norton is “the next DeNiro.” Put these guys on the screen together, and the idea of an actual story being told seems almost incidental. You half expect a symposium on film acting to break out, like when Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn got together to chat about the finer points of hitting a baseball.
When a film story featuring these performers does materialize, you don’t expect it to be something like The Score. This, after all, is a trio of quintessential Method actors, guys who have buried themselves so deep in their roles that people around them get spooked. Complex psychology is the stuff of their work. Where is there room for complex psychology in a heist thriller centered on that most dog-eared of premises, the weary veteran criminal who’s doing one last job before he retires?
In fact, there isn’t much room for complex psychology in The Score. It’s a crime caper stripped down to the sinew and bone, the principal characters sketched just clearly enough to set up the centerpiece theft. Weary veteran Nick (DeNiro) is trying to go legit as owner of a Montreal nightclub after 25 years as a professional safecracker. Nick’s long-time partner/fencer Max (Brando) has one last huge score in mind, one that could earn Nick four million dollars. And Jack (Edward Norton) is the hot-shot newcomer with talent and attitude to spare who comes in as Nick’s man on the inside. Cue the propulsive, 70s-tinged score by Howard Shore and let the big break-in roll.
Bare-bones plotting and characterization have been the life’s-blood of genre film-making since studios coined the term “B-movie,” and usually you hope for nothing more than simple competency. Add direction with an ounce of style, and the ante is upped. Add a cast full of actors whose collective charisma makes nearly every scene exponentially more fun than it has any business being, and you’ve got a movie that reminds you that the phrase “genre film-making” need not be spoken with unconcealed condescension.
At times, the script for The Score does give its stars something substantial to chew on. Brando—who every once in a while decides to trade in his status as legend-turned-nutcase/Largest Living Land Mammal for some genuine acting—gets one great scene as the retired bon vivant living beyond his means, slouching dejectedly beside an unfinished indoor pool. And Norton gets to transform himself physically for Jack’s cover persona, a mentally-challenged janitor working in the Montreal customs house that serves as the thieves’ target.
But you know you’re in the presence of greatness when simple moments in simple scenes suddenly erupt into something electrifying. One of The Score’s sharpest sequences finds Nick and Jack negotiating in a public park for security codes being offered up by a greedy computer geek. As the amateur appears with a hulking pal and identifies him as “my cousin,” Jack nods to Nick’s hired muscle and adds, “That’s my cousin. So we’ve all got family here. Which is nice.” Norton delivers the quip with a casual now-who’s-in-charge menace. He also ratchets up the tension with a manner that shows he may be just as interested in intimidating the guy as he is in getting the deal done—the short fuse to Nick’s cool professionalism.
As The Score plays out, Nick’s professionalism may be a bit too cool. DeNiro has played similar roles as the level-headed tough guy—most recently in Ronin—and there are times here when it feels like he’s not sure what new wrinkles he can provide. It doesn’t help that Nick is given the film’s most superfluous subplot, a relationship with a flight attendant (Angela Bassett) that shows up for a cup of coffee, scrawls the word “motivation” all over the place and promptly takes the next flight to Rome. It’s left to DeNiro to fill in every empty space in Nick’s character, and plenty of the spaces remain fairly empty.
Not that you’re likely to notice too many of them. The Score proves wonderfully light on its feet, keeping the expository scenes short and snappy before moving on to the next high-stakes sequence. That this deft handling of the material comes from director Frank Oz—directing his first thriller after a series of successful comedies like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In & Out and Bowfinger—makes The Score even more of a pleasant surprise. Oz guides the story without flash but with a remarkable sense of pacing. I can’t remember the last time two hours at the movies slipped by so effortlessly.
The Score gets a little too clever for its own good near its climax, but there’s so much goodwill built up by that point that even the arbitrary “gotchas” inspire a grin. There’s energy and smarts in every performance, even smaller supporting roles like Jamie Harrold’s turn as a tightly-wound hacker. But The Score really scores when the best actors of their respective generations—particularly Norton—give a clinic on how to do a lot with very little. Every acting symposium should be this entertaining.
The Score (R) HHH Directed by Frank Oz. Starring Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando.