I’ve been meaning to make a giant, comprehensive Letterboxd list of films that are ostensibly always playing on some American cable network. The Italian Job would surely make that list alongside other greatest hits of cinema like Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption, and Hitch. Despite The Italian Job‘s television ubiquity, I’m probably one of the last American adults not to have seen it until recently.
Maybe more surprising than that is The Italian Job does a lot right. Its success is largely due to F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator) and writers Donna and Wayne Powers finding the right formula early and committing to it. The plot, as well as the action, is dynamic. Every character gets a few beats to shine, and all mesh to create a positive rapport. Visually speaking, the spatial awareness is clear when things get hectic, and the narrative offers a couple surprises along the way. This isn’t canonical filmmaking, but it’s engaging entertainment, which is what the target demographic is seeking.
Despite its title, only the opening 20 minutes take place in Italy — Venice, specifically. We are plunged into an active heist involving six crooks. The hot commodity? $35 million in gold, to be achieved rather ambitiously without the use of a firearm. Time for the crew role-call: Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), the young leader coordinating his first big scheme; John (Donald Sutherland), the veteran safecracker who taught Charlie everything he knows; Lyle (Seth Green), the computer genius who insists he’s the real inventor of Napster; Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the pretty-boy goon who once grove across the country solely to set the record for the longest freeway chase; Left Ear (Mos Def), an explosives expert who took out hearing in his right hear messing with M80s as a kid; and Steve (Edward Norton), a con-man who goes rogue.
After the heist is successful, Steve pulls a gun on John, shoots him, and leaves the rest of the group for dead. A year later, the team is plotting revenge. This is when the film shifts from Italy to Los Angeles. Charlie tracks down John’s daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), a wizard when it comes to cracking safes. He needs her to help retrieve whatever gold Steve has left. The operation, in some ways, is about upholding honor among thieves, but also about avenging John’s death with Charlie being the new, permanent shot-caller.
Sutherland’s John gets very little screentime, but he imparts a bit of wisdom into the film before he is killed. He tells Charlie, “There are thieves who steal to enrich their lives, and ones who steal to define their lives.” John gets philosophical in his final minutes of life. He still spares no expense for the group when they toast Dom Perignon on the snowy slopes following a heist well-executed. It’s these little fragments of insight that give The Italian Job some dimension in a sea polluted by derivative pictures of the same cloth.
Wahlberg sets the tone not by imitating Michael Caine. He shoots for his own muscle-bound charisma. Charlize Theron is permitted time to craft a character of her own; she shines in scenes when she has to weasel her way into Steve’s home impersonating a cable repairman (and then eventually is coerced into a date). It’s refreshing to see a female character in an action movie not used as a prop with an inevitable expiration date. Moreover, a phoned-in performance by Edward Norton — who was reportedly contractually obligated to do this film — is still quality Norton. Other castmembers, such as Green and Mos Def, are given their own scenes to showcase their personalities. By the halfway point, you buy everything about this team: the chemistry, the collaboration, the mission, and the Mini Coopers.
I could argue The Italian Job is rather light on idiosyncratic elements for its supporting cast that would’ve etched it more favorably into the minds of viewers clamoring for the next film to treasure with cult-like infatuation. But this is democratized entertainment at its finest. It appeals to mainstream audiences while satisfying the demographic in search of light-hearted, efficiently curated action films. And it delights in its efforts.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Seth Green, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Franky G, and Donald Sutherland. Directed by: F. Gary Gray.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!