From the opening images of long, lonely Chicago streets glistening with rain and reflected neon on a stormy night, the new crime melodrama "Thief" promises to be a remarkably evocative and stylish feat of moviemaking.
Impressed by the obvious graphic and kinetic flair demonstrated by director Michael Mann and his crew, you'd prefer to suppress the suspicion that this dynamic style, paced to a throbbing rock theme by Tangerine Dream, could be the prelude to a thematic letdown.
Ultimately, a rude awakening is inescapable. "Thief," opening today opening today at area theaters, is not just saturated with texture and talent; it's oversaturated. The plot degenerates from stylized semi-documentary into nihilistic fantasy as Frank, the safecracking protagonist played by James Caan, evolves from highly trained and selective criminal technician into an outrageously abstract Lone Avenger, an outlaw refrain of Dirty Harry and Buford Pusser, operating in a setting where the wrong side of the law is the only permissible reality.
Reluctant to play ball with a gangster patron (Arena's Robert Prosky, in a flawless impression of disarming, avuncular menace) who wants to monopolize his services, Frank prefers to remain a free agent by destroying all impediments. This requires blowing away not only antagonists but also rejecting the connections -- marriage, family, home, business -- that stand in the way of pure anti-social self-assertion. Romanticizing the sociopathic tendencies, Mann suggests that those connections are symbols of an American Dream that has somehow betrayed or failed Frank. Won't do. The real failure is his own: Mann celebrates Frank's violent rejection of social ties without ever persuading us that there were ties he sincerely valued.
Frank's troubles begin when his fence commits suicide, owing Frank $180,000 from his latest delivery of stolen gems. A direct-action guy, Frank persuades the fence's gangster contacts to hand over his cut -- at gunpoint. But his desire to remain an independent is undermined by Prosky, whose offer of large-scale targets ("You'll be a millionaire in four months") coincides with schemes Frank himself is hatching -- a parole for his dying ex-cellmate, played by Willie Nelson, and respectable romantic designs on a restaurant cashier played by Tuesday Weld. He takes a chance on Prosky and soon regrets it.
In stark contrast to "Straight Time," an unjustly neglected crime movie of 1978 starring Dustin Hoffman as an incorrigible sociopath, "Thief' resists facing up to the corrupt nature of its protagonist. It begins in an authentic vein, but falls back on the fantasies of Lone Gun indomitability and moral superiority that underpin exploitation movies about intrepid urban vigilantes. By the time "Theif" winds down, Caan's characterization is listing several degrees starboard of "The Exterminator."
Keeping the major reservations in mind, "Thief' remains a fascinating and provocative movie. It's the most exaggerated example yet of the abiding imbalance in modernist filmmaking, where an abundance of texture fails to conceal a minimum of substance, although it frequently makes the act of concealment pictorially exciting.
In the same respect that John Irvin's talent vivified the dubious melodrama of "Dogs of War," Michael Mann's talent gives "Thief' an active pulse rate. The movies even share a photegenic obsession with high-powered and blatantly phallic tools of the trade. The exotic weaponry of "Dogs of War" gives way to exotic power tools in "Thief," as Caan penetrates safes with mammoth high-speed drills or extravagant, custom-made welding rods.
The dramatic quality of a director's material usually makes all the difference between a game try and a genuine achievement. The John Irvin who directed "Dogs of War" seems like a gifted mercenary; the John Irvin who directed "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" seems on the brink of greatness. The same may prove true of Mann when he applies himself to superior novelistic material. Judging from "Thief," his own writing abilities are superficial, limited to the mechanics of action melodrama or masculine confrontations of either a laconically chummy or profanely hostile sort.
Tuesday Weld's leading lady -- a hard-luck doll courted and married by Caan in his fleeting quest for stability and domesticity -- suggests that Mann hasn't a clue to the thought or behavior of women. Her role is painfully arbitrary and artificial. When she agrees to adopt a child at Caan's urging, Mann shows no subsequent perception of what this responsibility might mean to either foster parent. As a result, there's no tension between the professional danger Caan faces and the sort of haven he's supposedly intent on cultivating. The feeble romantic subplot actually gets in the way of the material Mann knows how to develop: cops-and-robbers in which the cops are crooked and robbers implacably ruthless.
Caan's performance seems dubious in direct proportion to his attempts to sound spontaneous. There's a studied undercurrent in his would-be casual or aggressive behavior. Prosky and Jim Belushi, cast as Caan's accomplice in charge of electronics, are far more relaxed and convincing figures. In addition, you welcome them as distinctive new character actors, presumable destined to authenticate the human background of many films to come. Belushi, John's younger brother, has a sleepy-eyed, beefy charm and physical authority, rather like the young Robert Mitchum crossed with the young Rod Steiger.
It may be a little late for the wily, expert Prosky to catch up with the credits of middle-aged reliables like Charles Durning, Jack Warden, Slim Pickens and Kenneth MacMillan, but he's an admirable, overdue addition to the same indispensable talent pool. His presence gives the Washington public a unique reason for feeling curiously cheerful about the way this flashy thriller self-destructs.