Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter, ...

For brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, the old adage is true: It’s not what you know but who you know. In their case, the who is director Steven Soderbergh (2001’s ”Ocean’s Eleven”), who saw their microbudget debut feature, ”Pieces,” at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival, dug it, and offered to help them any way he could. The director proved true to his word when his company, Section Eight, agreed to help produce the Russos’ remake of the 1958 Italian comedy ”Big Deal on Madonna Street.”

Set against the polyglot ethnic backdrop of the brothers’ native Cleveland (”Collinwood is known as the toughest neighborhood in a tough city,” says Anthony), the film stars ”Charlie’s Angels” bad guy Sam Rockwell — also in December’s ”Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — as a boxer who teams with Andrew Davoli, Michael Jeter, William H. Macy, and Isaiah Washington to steal an apartment’s safe. (George Clooney, Soderbergh’s Section Eight partner, cameos as a safe cracker.) Meanwhile, Rockwell falls for the tenants’ maid (Jennifer Esposito). To prepare, Rockwell spent time in Cleveland’s melting pot. ”I went to the Italian section to learn my boxing,” he says, ”and the Serbian section to learn my curse words.” The Russos say Soderbergh and Clooney were hands-off creatively but were active as producers, at one point rescuing the film from turnaround; when their chief financier, the German company Kinowelt, had money problems, Soderbergh and Clooney moved the project to Warner Bros. Says Joe, ”That’s just one of the miracles those guys can deliver.”

THE LOWDOWN Sounds quirky, fun…and small.

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