Film Discussion

The Italian Job (2003) – Throwback 20

We live in an age of cinema eating itself, devouring all of the existing intellectual property which it can get its hands on, and regurgitating it in a variety of different ways, some far less appealing than others. Originality would seem to have taken a backseat, in favour of a near-constant stream of do-overs and follow-ups.

The multiplexes appear to be chock full of sequels, requels, reimaginings, reversionings, revisionings. Yet amongst all of this, there are some films which are arguably felt to be nigh-on sacrosanct, never to be tampered with or touched on pain of death. No-one, for example, has yet been bold enough to try to redo Gone With The Wind, or have another crack at Citizen Kane. For some of these classics, it would almost be like trying to put arms on the Venus de Milo, or paint over the Mona Lisa.

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However, there are still great motion pictures which have – inexplicably in creative terms, yet motivated purely by the lure of box office returns – ended up having continuations, sometimes in an all-too clear demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. Jaws, for example, seems like perhaps one of the least likely feature films to be revisited, given the fate of the antagonist. Yet, over the course of a decade, we would get three follow-ons, culminating in Michael Caine only blowing the bloody dorsal off in lacklustre entry Jaws: The Revenge.

Of course, Sir Maurice Micklewhite has also been victim of other people reheating and rehashing legendary properties with which he was associated. Take, for example, the 2000 take on Get Carter, with Caine taking a supporting role as Sylvester Stallone steps into the lead role. Or – in perhaps the most egregious example – those damn Yankees taking an intrinsically British iconic feature and retooling it for an American audience almost 35 years later, in the case of The Italian Job.

The 1969 original came right at the tail end of the Swinging Sixties, showing a nation at the height of its cultural powers. British music had rocked the world, thanks to Merseybeat and – of course – Beatlemania. The nation was also still on a high from its 4-2 extra time victory over West Germany in the final of the 1966 World Cup. There seemed to be no limit to what Great Britain – with the emphasis more than ever on the ‘Great’ – could do, and The Italian Job was full of all that formidable cockiness and swagger, cocking a cheeky, Union Flag-draped snook at Johnny Foreigner.

© 2003 Paramount Pictures.

There was very nearly a sequel, with details of an alternate ending and planned continuation having been revealed by producer Michael Deeley in 2019. However, it was the studio behind the original version – Paramount Pictures – which would end up producing a reinvention of the concept, after nearly bringing to life a more conventional rendition. The writers of multiple James Bond features – Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – came up with a script which was a relatively faithful take on the 1969 movie, taking place in Italy like the original.

However, their screenplay was rejected by the studio execs, and the husband-and-wife team of Donna and Wayne Powers were approached to write their own version. After watching the original, they decided to keep the bare bones elements of the story – the theft of gold bullion, the traffic jam, and the getaway using Mini Coopers – and then create their own tale around those points. Although there was still humour, it was pitched in an overall straighter tone, with less of the comedy and campiness than the Sixties film.

What the Powers did was to subvert audience expectations to some extent, by effectively inverting some portions of the original story. Rather than culminating with having the big heist taking place in Turin, the ‘Italian Job’ of the title is over and done within the first 20 minutes, with the thrust of the picture being a setup for a revenge story following a double cross, which gives the lie to the old adage about there being honour amongst thieves. This then leads to a Los Angeles-based sting, where the crew have to steal back the gold from the treacherous party, using the Mini Coopers.

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If you can disregard the fact that this was based on another property, then the 2003 take on The Italian Job is a perfectly serviceable caper flick, in the Ocean’s Eleven vein. For Mark Wahlberg, this was to be his third appearance in a remake of a 1960s film – previously, he had been in Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet Of The Apes, as well as the following year’s The Truth About Charlie, which was a spin on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Charade. Given that it was seemingly becoming something of a pattern for Wahlberg, he was reluctant to make it three in a row, but was won over by the script, deciding to take on Caine’s part of Charlie Croker.

Charlize Theron was yet to attain the status she holds today, as her turn in Monster – which resulted in her winning Best Actress at 2004’s Academy Awards – would not hit cinemas until six months after The Italian Job’s release. However, as Stella Bridger, she at least has some lighter moments, while also getting some dramatic beats, in having to process the death of her father, John (Donald Sutherland), which gives her the ultimate motivation to stray away from the straight and narrow to seek retribution against his killer, the weaselly and duplicitous Steve Frazelli (Edward Norton).

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Norton is perhaps one of the weakest elements in the movie, giving a very much ‘phoning it in’ performance, no doubt due to the fact this was a contractual obligation, rather it being a role or project of his choice. It was either appear in this, and see out the terms of his contract, or face legal action against him by Paramount. As such, Norton is maybe not the person who would have ideally been cast, had the studio not looked to exercise their option and effectively force him to appear in the film, and it shows through in his performance.

Mos Def was still in the relatively early stages of his move to acting, having made a name for himself in music, and would later go on to appear as Ford Prefect in the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Galaxy, as well as co-starring in Michel Gondry’s film Be Kind Rewind. However, he acquits himself well as the explosives expert ‘Left Ear’. Seth Green was still hot from his turns in the first two Austin Powers movies, as his supporting role in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, being cast here as the crew’s tech support, Lyle, who claims to have been the real inventor of Napster (with a cameo from the actual creator, Shawn Fanning).

Rounding out the team is Jason Statham as Handsome Rob, building on the momentum from the previous year’s action flick The Transporter (with Statham’s then-current beau, Kelly Brook, getting a small cameo at the end of the movie). The assembled gang manage to pull off an audacious heist in broad daylight, leading to a frantic chase through LA, the trio of Minis pursued by motorcyclists and a helicopter. All credit to director F. Gary Gray for making sure that the majority of the action is played out for real, rather than relying upon the CGI-heavy, physics-defying antics seen in The Fast and the Furious series.

© 2003 Paramount Pictures.

Regardless of your feelings as to the merits or otherwise of redoing a renowned classic, The Italian Job recouped nearly three times its $60 million budget, raking in £176 million globally, making it Paramount’s highest-grossing feature of 2003. That kind of box office heist is enough to make studio execs sit up and take notice, and for a time it looked as if the 21st Century The Italian Job would manage to do something that its progenitor and inspiration had failed to achieve over three decades earlier: get a sequel.

‘The Brazilian Job’ was planned to follow hot on the heels of the remake, pencilled in for a late 2005 release. Writer David Twohy had penned an original script, entitled ‘The Wrecking Crew’, but Paramount felt it would be a more suitable follow-up to The Italian Job. Wahlberg, Theron, Statham and Green were lined up to return, with Gray taking the helm once more to direct. The mooted continuation would reportedly be set partly in Belgium, and focus around a diamond theft, after a setup based in Rio de Janeiro. Various drafts were prepared, with Purvis and Wade – whose own retooling of The Italian Job was scrapped – becoming involved in rewrites.

However, the project soon entered Development Hell, with various execs who had championed the 2003 movie having since moved elsewhere, and the renowned reluctance of new brooms to take over any projects left in the in-trays of their predecessors. In the intervening years, many cast members have also gone on to far bigger roles, so the commensurate paydays for each of them if the project were to be made now would bloat the budget, and make it far less of an attractive proposition than if it had been made soon after. Studio execs are – if nothing else – a Self Preservation Society.

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And so, while our heroes had a happy and conclusive-enough ending in this version of The Italian Job, their future has still been left hanging in the balance nonetheless, as precarious as a bus on the precipice of, say, a winding mountain road. It remains to be seen whether Croker and his compadres will be seen tearing off a strip in ‘The Brazilian Job’, but we may get a further entry in the wider canon, with reports circulating of a sequel to the 1969 Job in the form of a Paramount+ series, focusing on the original Charlie Croker’s grandchildren going on a quest to recover the lost Italian gold.

Whatever happens, and whichever continuation we may get in the end, we can only hope that it makes up for 2003’s Job having missed a pun-tastic open goal in having failed to cast Minnie Driver.

The Italian Job was released in the USA on 30th May 2003.

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