The Score (R) ★★

Review Date: July 20th, 2001

In 1989, a terrific cast--Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick--couldn't prevent the crime caper Family Business from being a disappointment. Now The Score pits Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando against each another, and the result is even less satisfying.

Story

Given that The Score's motto seems to have been ''been there, stole that,'' it's hard to imagine why it would interest the likes of De Niro, Norton and Brando. Perhaps the determining factor was the prospect of working with one another. Couldn't be the rather pedestrian and obvious story and script credited to Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith and Daniel E. Taylor, which is a basic rehashing of everything from Sexy Beast to The Thomas Crown Affair. See, De Niro's safecracker wants to retire and live happily ever after with main squeeze Angela Bassett. Lo and behold, longtime partner-in-crime Brando offers De Niro the chance of a lifetime: steal a 16th-century French scepter from a Montreal customs house and live like a king. The catch? The inside man is the brash, disrespectful and untrustworthy Norton. De Niro hates risks. Working with Norton represents a risk. Risks land you in prison, he tells Norton. So, naturally, De Niro takes the risk we expect him to take. Too bad the risks offer little in the way of intrigue or surprise.

Acting

De Niro's cool and calm, but there's little effort to make his thief anything other than an old pro out to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. Norton has the flashier role. He poses as a mildly retarded janitor to infiltrate the customs house. Cue endless scenes of Norton's Rain Man cocking his head, asking the same dumb question, and smiling at jokes made at his expense. Outside of the customs house, he exudes cockiness, impudence and a willingness to underestimate his partners. A coherent Brando still proves a distraction by constantly scratching his jutting jaw whenever he parks himself on the nearest stool. The prospect of seeing the men who won Academy Awards for portraying Don Corleone is tantalizing, but the lengthy conversations between De Niro and Brando seem listless and devoid of weight. The same applies to the scenes--a disappointing two--between De Niro, Norton and Brando.

Direction

The Score marks a distinct change of pace for director Frank Oz. One of the creative forces behind The Muppets, Oz's post-Miss Piggy career includes such frenetic farces as Little Shop of Horrors and Bowfinger. Almost as a complete rejection of his past achievements, Oz keeps The Score as po-faced and static as possible. There's no time for any humor when there's a safe to be cracked. Oz keeps the cameras trained on his cast, seemingly afaird to move it in case he misses a gesture borne out of genius. Bearing this in mind, everything else seems secondary. Which is how the heist feels. De Niro breaks in. We knew he would. He manages to open the safe. We knew he would. There's never a moment that doesn't feel manufactured. Even the last-minute twist feels like the comeuppance we've been expecting since De Niro first gave Norton a look of monumental disdain.

Bottom Line

De Niro. Norton. Brando. A remarkable cast. An unremarkable heist. The money must be good.