Caper comedies stress twists and misdirection. Ironically, this makes them exceptionally predictable. They work like close-up magic, jazzing viewers with comic patter and small turns so that they don’t see the big reveal coming. But, as with magic, everyone knows there’ll be a big reveal; it’s the trick, the reason they’re watching in the first place. And, like magicians, caper comedies tend to lean back on tried-and-true gimmicks for the buildup, intercutting heists with scenes of the thieves planning, and coloring their paint-by-numbers structures (the team is assembled, the heist is planned and tensely executed, the getaway is accompanied by some kind of twist) with freeze-frames, explanatory titles, multiple narrators, flashback reveals, and semi-ironic needle drops.
All of these are present and accounted for in The Art Of The Steal, a Canadian caper comedy that will feel awfully familiar to most viewers. In the movie, a team of art thieves, led by estranged Irish-American half-brothers Nicky (Matt Dillon) and Crunch (Kurt Russell), reunites to sneak a rare 15th edition of the Infancy Gospel Of James across the border. (Those with a passing knowledge of New Testament apocrypha will find themselves at an advantage when it comes to guessing the big twist.) Crunch, who serves as the main narrator, is a grizzled post-Tarantino professional, a wheelman who spent five and a half years in a Polish prison after Nicky’s last heist went sour and now works the Canadian-border monster truck circuit, intentionally messing up stunts in exchange for a few hundred bucks. (“I once saw you almost jump six cars in Buffalo!” one fan exclaims.) Like all of the movie’s assorted lowlife stock types, he’s self-aware, a crook raised on heist movies. In one climactic scene, he berates Nicky about his lack of scruples; sure, Crunch knows that honor among thieves is movie “bullshit,” but it’s bullshit that he’s chosen to believe in, and he wants Nicky to respect his beliefs by being honorable.
Despite its all-too-familiar surface gloss, The Art Of The Steal has something more sophisticated going on inside. Considering that part of the pleasure of the caper genre comes from over-explanation—characters detailing plans as they’re being carried out, or telling the viewer just how they managed to get away with it—this central theme, which forms the basis for the ending twist, seems uncharacteristically well hidden.
Crunch’s speech about honor is played for laughs, but it’s one of the few moments where the movie comes close to admitting that it’s about the notion of choosing to believe in something false because it conforms to one’s desires. The other comes from a non-comedic monologue from not-quite-antagonist Samuel Winter (Terence Stamp), an art thief who’s gone to the other side in exchange for a reduced sentence. Winter spends most of the movie acting like Interpol’s peeved butler, but for a few minutes, he drops his façade in order to relate to Crunch how, as a child, he became obsessed with museums because art seemed to suggest a world that was more perfect than the one he knew as the son of a working-class single mother in post-war London. Buried underneath the movie’s many layers of pulp fluff and knucklehead comedy is a compelling take on why people are drawn to familiar, generic pleasures—self-aware caper comedies, for instance. Perhaps it’s buried too deeply for its own good.