Except for a few dodgy plot tricks, “The Art of the Steal” is a pleasantly modest entry in that overdone genre, the heist film. It's got “Canadian production” written all over it, from writer/director Jonathan Sobol to a cast that includes Kenneth Welsh, Jay Baruchel, Stephen McHattie, Jason Jones and Katheryn Winnick, among an essentially all-Canadian roster. The three big exceptions are the three best-known stars — Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon and Terence Stamp.
Nothing wrong with a Canadian production in general, though, presumably as a condition for various funds, the setting briefly switches to Quebec City for no particularly pressing reason. Well, if your production money depends on commercial placement, better it be for a province than a product.
Russell plays Crunch Calhoun, a stunt driver/art thief; ergo, he is the perfect “Wheel Man.” Crunch has just finished a prison sentence and plans to go straight — if deliberately taking dives during daredevil stunts counts as straight.
Crunch is relaxing with his girlfriend, Lola (Winnick), and his “apprentice,” star-struck young Francie (Baruchel), when a thug beats him up, wanting to know where a certain stolen Seurat can be found. Our hero has no idea, until the thug mentions Crunch's half-brother and former partner in crime, Nicky Calhoun (Dillon). This is the self-same brother who is responsible for Crunch's prison time: six years earlier, Nicky, who has a greater number of prior convictions and therefore more to lose in court, gave up Crunch to save his own skin.
This has put a certain strain on their sibling love and trust. They meet up with Uncle Paddy (Welsh), their fence, to either find or sell the Seurat and/or commit a much more complex scheme involving a priceless Gutenberg volume. This is where the plot begins to get muddy. I think — but will not swear — that I understood the tangle of plans and betrayals and counter-betrayals at the time, even with the movie's constant geographical and temporal hopscotch. Trying to reconstruct it a few hours later — even with the help of copious notes — well, that's a whole different thing.
The fractured style involves a number of flashbacks about earlier heists. Besides Seurat and Gutenberg, a stolen Gauguin is mentioned, as well as an early 20th century super-heist involving the Mona Lisa. With the exception of the Mona Lisa caper, these crimes all involve their gang, so it's easy to lose track, and it's hard to be sure just where (or when) things are at various times.
While the gang risks the fury of every other art thief in Canada and its larger neighbor to the south, they are also being pursued by an ill-tempered, not very bright, Interpol agent (Jones). The agent would pose no threat at all, if it weren't for Sam Winter (Stamp), a venerable old colleague, who will get an early release from the slammer in return for helping nab the gang.
Sobol keeps the pace moving and provides a couple dozen genuinely funny lines, which — together with the fine cast — help the film breeze by entertainingly. You may even not resent the early moment when one of the gang does something too stupid to believe; and you may not really care that the final big plot revelation — you'll have to take my word, since I don't want to spoil it — seems like one twist too far.
It all goes down pleasantly enough, but don't expect to remember a moment of it by the time you reach the parking lot.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).