Ty Burr tells Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro that the audience cares about ''The Score,'' even if they don't seem to

By Ty Burr
Updated July 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Score

  • Movie

When great actors go bad

What do you get when you put three guys who are arguably the finest actors of their respective generations into one movie?

A play date, apparently.

On the surface, ”The Score” is one of the summer’s few class acts and the most streamlined of the heist flicks out there right now (it makes ”Swordfish” look like a chattery, eager-to-please child). Like the classic ”Rififi” or the more recent ”Heat,” the Frank Oz thriller is about the pleasures of watching manly men going about the business of planning and executing a high-stakes robbery. It’s a world where little gestures count, where preparation is all, where the highest words of praise are ”terse competence.”

Now, I ask you: Isn’t casting Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, and Edward Norton here a little like asking Picasso to paint by numbers? Granted, all three are heavyweights who’ve shown their ability to work on both the grand scale and in miniature, but ”The Score” doesn’t play as a tour de force of subtlety so much as a disappointingly rote genre piece. DeNiro plays the methodical, middle-aged safecracker whose cover is his Montreal jazz club; Brando is a high-living fence; Norton is the brash young kid who pulls him in to, yes, one last job. The object of the heist, not that it matters much, is a priceless gold scepter cached in the Montreal Customs House.

This is a Rubik’s Cube movie, and you know how it works. There’s the scepter in an impenetrable vault, behind laser alarms, watched by cameras — now how are the guys gonna get it out? We’ve seen this so many times before that we’re expecting more twists and double crosses than in fact happen. The twist of ”The Score,” it turns out, is that there IS no twist. (Well, there’s one, but you’ll see it a mile off).

The main order of business, then, is watching three acting titans (okay, Norton’s a potential titan, in the same way you can say that Nomar Garciaparra stands a good chance of ending up in the Hall of Fame). And they? have fun. It looks like it was a lovely shoot, if you ignore stories of Brando telling former Muppetmaster Oz to stick his hand up the actor’s rear and direct him like he was Miss Piggy. Brando does his fey, New Orleans madame bit that he does when he doesn’t feel like acting. Norton has a showy double role as an amoral con man who masquerades as a mentally challenged janitor. DeNiro mostly looks like he’s doing his taxes. Really, jazzbo great Mose Allison gets more complex shadings into his 30-second appearance at the nightclub than DeNiro gets into his entire performance.

Feel cheated? I did (and I won’t even get into the utter waste of Angela Bassett as DeNiro’s ”please don’t go” girlfriend, other than to say that casting the sublime star of ”What’s Love Got to Do With It” as a STEWARDESS should be a federal crime). But here’s the thing: What, if anything, do these guys owe us? They’ve made their bones, and then some. If they want to ditz around on a genre piece, underplaying it into inconsequentiality, shouldn’t we let it slide and hope for better things?

In a way, ”The Score” gets to the heart of all the expectations hanging over the heads of ”great actors” — it’s wilfully ordinary and quite happy to be so. This may be nothing new for Brando, who has been flipping the bird to stardom and, more depressingly, to his own craft for many years now. It seems part of DeNiro’s latter day career path, too, even if he’s now ALL craft. Eschewing the transfixing violence of his early career, DeNiro’s the anti-Pacino, becoming more Zen, more invisible as the other actor turns louder and hammier.

And Norton? God bless him, he’s still having fun being an actor. If his dual turn as Jack/Brian is a case of showboating, it’s still more to the point, character-oriented, and creative than Brando’s baroque fripperies. Norton plays the most cynical guy in ”The Score,” but he’s the only one who appears to have some ideals left about what he’s doing. Or maybe he’s just the one out of the three that still cares that there’s an audience out there.

What did you think of ”The Score”?

Episode Recaps

The Score

  • Movie
  • R
  • 124 minutes