With top-flight talent onboard that includes the likes of Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, and Angela Bassett, one has to wonder how Frank Oz's "The Score" got greenlit without one person involved--be it the cast or the crew--calling it on its mediocre screenplay. Unevenly written by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith, what we have here is a would-be crime thriller involving a long-time burglar who is about to perform one last big score before retirement, if only he can get away with it unscathed. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
The man in question is Nick Wells (Robert De Niro), and now that he owns a successful Montreal nightclub, he wants out of his life of crime. Inspiring this decision is his devoted, flight attendant girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett), who has agreed to give up her job position and move to Montreal to be with him, if only he fulfills his end of the bargain and stops putting his life on the line. But first, Nick must pull off one final job, brought to his attention by an old friend named Max Baron (Marlon Brando). It seems the Custom House has a beautiful, 17th-century scepter in storage that is, more or less, priceless, and if Nick is able to pull it off, he will remain wealthy for the rest of his crime-free life. Despite vowing always to work alone, Nick is persuaded by Max to be accompanied by young ingenue Jackie Teller (Edward Norton), who works at the Custom House and is the one man that can get on the inside and case the location of the scepter.
For its opening ninety minutes, "The Score" rambles along setting up the premise, and then repeats this set-up again and again with variations on who the characters happen to be in each given scene. Heist films are a subgenre as old as the silent picture era, and "The Score" needlessly wallows in its cliches for far too long, as if director Frank Oz (1999's "Bowfinger") isn't quite sure that the audience will understand the complex plot. Little did Oz realize that the plot is actually quite simple, and maybe even too simple to sustain a two-hour-plus running time.
If the first three-quarters of the film are basic filler for what is to come, the final thirty minutes are a suspenseful, crackerjack entertainment, tightly paced and drenched in nailbiting tension. As the heist gets underway, almost everything that could go wrong does, and Oz excels in following Nick and Jackie on their high-risk steal.
Perhaps the climax seems so impressive because everything that comes before it is such a waste of time. The characters are handled in a clunky manner that paints them as giant bores with little interests outside of what the story requires. Robert De Niro (2001's "15 Minutes") is a consistently great actor who, for the first time in memory, fails to deliver an interesting performance. De Niro is by no means bad, but his character of Nick is dull, and so is he. Edward Norton (2000's "Keeping the Faith") fares decidedly better, only because his role of Jackie requires that he actually do a little something that stands out. In Jackie's case, this is acting like a mentally handicapped man through half of the movie, as he singlehandedly fools everyone he works with at the Custom House.
In phoned-in parts that are woefully underutilized, it is downright depressing to see a screen icon such as Marlon Brando (1996's "The Island of Dr. Moreau") just sit around and attempt to make the best of the circumstances. Granted, Brando is not in the best of health (or shape), so this may explain his limited involvement in the story, but he deserves better. Meanwhile, Angela Bassett (2000's "Supernova") turns in a small, effective performance as Nick's long-suffering gal, but something tells me a large chunk of her role found its way to the cutting-room floor.
In what could have been a dynamite crime movie with excellent actors strutting their stuff in a taut script, director Frank Oz has botched the results, and with no help from his lazy writers. Repetitive to the point of viewer impatience, only to strike back with a bravura final act that exposes how deeply flawed the rest of it is, "The Score" must ultimately go down as a missed opportunity, one that will undoubtedly hang as little more than a footnote in these fine performers' respective careers.
©2001 by Dustin Putman