Archive for Thursday, May 29, 2003

Stealing the show

Mark Wahlberg puts modern spin on classic heist movie in ‘The Italian Job’

May 29, 2003

In Britain, 1969's "The Italian Job" is revered as
something of a national treasure.

The heist caper not only routinely tops critics' lists, but in a 2003
United Kingdom movie survey, Michael Caine's blared remark, "You're
only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" was voted the most
memorable line of any film.

Yet actor Mark Wahlberg had never heard of "The Italian Job."

"I was so surprised that I never knew about the original, because
I've seen every great heist movie ever made," says Wahlberg, who
takes over Caine's lead role in the current American remake. "But
that film wasn't that popular here. Even my dad hadn't seen it, and
he's seen every movie."

Wahlberg now headlines a stellar cast that includes Donald
Sutherland, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron in this blockbuster
from director F. Gary Gray ("The Negotiator").

Although the movie capitalizes on a few basic elements of the
decades-old original - it's about a gold heist, and the crooks use a
deliberate traffic jam and three BMW MINIs as part of the scheme -
this Hollywood updating is an entirely different affair.

"I was definitely not into the idea of doing any more remakes or
'reimaginings' - or whatever the hell they're trying to call it now,"
Wahlberg says, interviewed at a May 9 press roundtable in New York.
"But with this particular script it was something I was kind of
looking to do.

Wahlberg's barb is aimed at his recent role in the 2001 version of
"Planet of the Apes," which was less than enthusiastically received.

"I usually try and do something that I can connect with in some sort
of way. I always draw on past experience," he says. "But it depends
on the part. I'm also trying to do things that I don't really have
any connection with - as long as it's not science fiction ... I don't
believe it, and I can't convince anybody else of it."

Heist vs. heist
It was the result of filming "Planet of the Apes" that Wahlberg lost
out on his first opportunity to update a classic heist picture.

The 31-year-old actor was originally cast as the pickpocket in George
Clooney's version of "Ocean's Eleven." However, Wahlberg was still
busy shooting his sci-fi gig, so the role went to Matt Damon.

"In my opinion - I hate to hurt my friend George's feelings - but
('The Italian Job') is a lot more fun and a lot more hip," Wahlberg
emphasizes. "I liked 'Ocean's Eleven.' It had a great cast. But I'm
glad that I'm in this movie and not that movie ... I'll get a call
about that."

In the film, Wahlberg plays Charlie Croker, the mastermind behind a
daring gold robbery. When one of his partners (Edward Norton) betrays
the team and leaves the members for dead, the gang plots revenge.
Tracking their quarry to Los Angeles, they devise a wild scheme to
retrieve the precious bricks.

"With this movie it doesn't call for as much research as you would
think, but there were challenges for me," says Wahlberg, who lists
James Caan's "Thief" as one of his favorite heist flicks.

"For instance, I never (previously) had to be concerned about being
likable ... Gary (Gray) was concerned with this guy being likable
enough to get the audience behind him and his crew. So I had to ham
it up a little bit; a wink and smile here and there."

Director Gray says, "I feel Mark understands what it takes to lead an
ensemble group. If you're selfish or self-centered, that can create a
lot of issues and personality problems. But because he is such a
great guy he gave everybody the room to do their own thing."

While Wahlberg and co-star Charlize Theron (who plays a safecracker)
had collaborated together previously in the sleeper "The Yards," the
rest of the cast had never shared the screen.

"I was wondering if it was going to work or not because everyone is
so vastly different," Wahlberg says of co-stars Seth Green (the
"Austin Powers" series), Jason Statham ("Snatch") and rapper Mos Def.
"But when we all got in the room it really just made sense."

Gray ensured this happened by turning the group into actual criminals.

During the first day of rehearsal, the filmmaker told his principal
cast members to put down their scripts because they were going to
prepare for the job a whole new way.

"I wanted to establish a bond," Gray remembers. "So I basically said,
'This is a heist movie, and I want to do a heist today.'"

The outfit plotted for a few hours, then went and committed a chain
of not-so-petty larcenies.

"They stole a few things," Gray says, offering little detail when
pressed. "My poor assistant had to go back and return all these
things before anyone noticed they were gone."

The director was adamant Wahlberg and the group experience success
without being caught, because the situation could have horribly
backfired. Then they might have been stuck using the same defense
Winona Ryder tried at her shoplifting hearing, claiming it was just
"research" for a role as a thief in an upcoming movie.

"But I rolled the dice, and they ended up being very successful at
it," Gray says. "It was very liberating, and we all had champagne at
the end of the day like in the movie."

No need for stuntmen
This wasn't the first time the actors mimicked the conduct of their characters.

"The Italian Job" may be a modern, big-budget release, but the whole
production was given an old-school approach. One of the ways the crew
accomplished this was by placing the actors within the filmed action.

Look carefully at the car, boat and helicopter chases, and it's
obvious the stunt people bear more than a casual resemblance to the
actors. That's because doubles were rarely used.

The speed boat roaring down the canals of Venice? That's Statham at the helm.

The Minis barreling down the subway steps? That's Theron or Wahlberg
looking over the dashboard.

"For safety reasons they wanted to make sure that people were good
behind the wheel," Wahlberg recalls of the intensive driving school
the actors were put through. "The cars were a blast to drive. But I
had to be in the passenger seat a couple times. I got sick probably
four or five times because Charlize is ridiculously crazy behind the
wheel. In a stick shift it's just, 'Voom ... voom ... voom.' I don't
want to even shake now to demonstrate because I got sick this
morning."

Wahlberg adds that one of the reasons he was attracted to the project
(especially following "Planet of the Apes") was because it didn't
heavily rely on special effects. In fact, there is only one computer
generated image shot in the entire film, when a helicopter rotor
blade smashes into a windshield of the car driven by Wahlberg.

Interestingly, a movie such as this proves to be LESS expensive when
large-scale effects are done for real than when simulated by computer.

"It's more dangerous and there's more at stake," Gray explains.
"There aren't any wires, there aren't any trampolines, there aren't
any nets - we're doing the real action. The actors are really driving
down the stairs at 40 MPH and making turns. The audience can feel
that and can appreciate it."

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