It wasn’t too long ago that Kurt Russell was an A-list star, whose shtick was an irresistible combination of alpha male swagger and self-deprecating humor — all the more impressive a feat given that he began as a nice Disney movie kid. He’s barely been seen since Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 faux-grindhouse pic “Death Proof” — a high-water mark that had the misfortune of being foolishly panned by its own maker — and the fact that he’s front and center on anything, even a quickie effort like “The Art of the Steal,” is reason enough to be happy.
In many ways, “The Art of the Steal” is an ideal Kurt Russell vehicle: silly, energetic yet capable of delivering the basic goods. It’s a heist picture, with Russell’s so-called Crunch Calhoun operating in the world of paintings. After a blown job puts him inside a Polish prison, Calhoun returns to his other questionable occupation: motorcycle daredevilry. When that puts him in a neck brace, he goes back for the fabled one final score, which means reuniting with his brother (Matt Dillon), who may not be exactly trustworthy.
There are many flavors of heist picture, and this one is “Ocean’s Eleven” done on the cheap. Writer-director Jonathan Sobol does his own stealing, swiping Steven Soderbergh’s hyper-editing, where each cut and frame within frame is married to its own sound effect, and an air of good fun, where no one’s taking anything seriously — which is good, because it’s otherwise a stock twist-a-thon. From Guy Ritchie, Sobol nicks cute names flying on the screen (Paddy “The Rolodex” for a well-connected Irishman). It’s hand-me-down filmmaking, but it works, and it’s not without charm. For one thing, setting a film in the underworld of art robbery means you get dumb hoods who mispronounce Georges-Pierre Seurat as “Georges Soo-rat,” but can still cite his place in art history without stuttering.
If anything “The Art of the Steal” is too silly. It’s one thing to have Jay Baruchel doing his nervy business as Calhoun’s right-hand man. It’s another to have Jason Jones ad-libbing his way through the role of the frustrated agent tasked with nailing them. Even with lots of flash, it doesn’t totally forget about the old guys. Along with Russell is Terrence Stamp, playing a busted thief forced to aid the authorities. Though they share little joint screen time, Stamp’s calm word-weariness nicely compliments Russell’s weathered zeal. By the end, with a more reserved climax than one would think possible in this type of picture, it almost seems to possess weight. It doesn’t actually, but the good vibes help this one slink by, even if you’ll never remember having seen it.