The Score
directed by Frank Oz &
Robert De Niro
(Paramount, 2001)

Nick is a Montreal jazz club owner who moonlights as a safecracker. Or, he's a safecracker who has a jazz club on the side. Take your pick.

When he's not cracking safes or making runs to the wine cellar, Nick (Robert De Niro) is rolling in the hay with stewardess Diane (Angela Bassett), all of which makes for a very interesting if somewhat complicated life. So Nick, who's getting a little old for crime capers, decides to uncomplicate his life by giving up his less-than-legal sideline -- after one big score.

The Score is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a chance to steal a 17th-century French scepter stashed in the basement of the Montreal Customs House. But Nick isn't doing this for art: he's doing it for a chance to pay off the jazz club and settle down with Diane.

For her part, Diane is eager to see Nick settle down, but not in jail, which is one of the many complications that dominate Frank Oz's caper flick, The Score. Just a few of the others are:
• Jack (Edward Norton), the guy who dreamed up the caper, a young hothead who's managed to get on the inside of the customs house by posing as a physically and mentally challenged night shift custodian.
• Alex (Marlon Brando), the guy who pitched it to Nick, his longtime erratic partner in crime who's deeper in debt than Argentina and needs the money to keep him off the bottom of the St. Lawrence.
• Diane, who wants Nick to give up safecracking before, not after, a score that could land him in jail for years.
• The customs house itself, which becomes more formidable by the minute as authorities begin to realize what a valuable piece they have on their hands.
• And Nick's own rules about safecracking: 1) never crack a safe in your hometown; and 2) never take long shots.

How Nick picks off these complications one at a time is the stuff caper films are made of, and this is one of the best.

Director Oz opted to focus on two things -- the men and the minutiae behind the operation -- and his choices couldn't have been better. By focusing on method, Oz lays out a veritable textbook for attempting the impossible. And cinematographer Rob Hahn captures it in near-microscopic detail, from the view through Nick's miniperiscope to the sparks flying from his blowtorch.

And by focusing on characters, Oz raises The Score above a typical suspense flick. This is that rare film in which, for no identifiable reason, you can't help but root for the bad guys, even when it looks like they're about to do each other in. And it doesn't hurt that we get the good -- a.k.a. The Godfather -- Brando here, not his Island of Dr. Moreau evil twin.

Then, too, it doesn't hurt to have brief performance appearances by Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison. I mean, what's a good score without a good score?

Best of all, Oz and Hahn have chosen to show rather than tell their story: you can't follow Score by listening to the dialogue. If you want to know what's really going on, you have to watch the expressions on the characters' faces -- and see the operation unfold as they see it.

The Score doesn't have much to say about life, except maybe a life of crime, and, on the whole, it doesn't make much of its location in Montreal, a world-class city with some striking vistas and a delightful old-world feel. But it has tons of other stuff to recommend it, and very little not to recommend it. What better recommendation could you ask for?

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 1 November 2003

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