There’s something about a good confidence film. They’re not always A-List-led romps like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or explorations of morality like Rififi (1955). Sometimes, they’re a mixture of both, keeping the audience on their toes the entire time like Confidence (2003). The one thing these stories have in common is their willingness to break the law as they follow a strict code of right and wrong. This is the basis for the new Anthony Nardolillo-directed (Shine) and Michael Corcoran-written project, Righteous Thieves, as group of thieves seeks to right a longstanding moral (and personal) wrong. Oddly, the film makes a better pilot for a television program than it does a feature, placing dramatic emphasis on the mission via the Holocaust at the expense of character development, all while setting up further adventures in which the characters can be explored.
After a job went south, retrieval specialist Annabel (Lisa Vidal) is on the outs with her employers until she brings word of a discovery close to one of the founding members of the organization: four paintings lost since World War II. Given one last chance, Annabel assembles a team to reclaim the paintings from Otto Huizen (Brian Cousins), a rich man with designs on a Fourth Reich. With her ragtag team assembled, Annabel seems destined for victory until Otto reveals himself to be a competent adversary.
Righteous Thieves has all the hallmarks of a modern con film: good-looking cast playing talented characters, a despicable bad guy, and a hard-to-resist target. The issues, however, are many, stemming from the persistent/consistent cinematography of the film, too little exploration of character, and a heist that contains little-to-no tension. When I tell you that Thieves looks like it was produced as a television pilot, this isn’t to denigrate television as some lesser form of storytelling. It’s that every single scene is lit with the same technique no matter what’s going on, providing a uniformity that undercuts the smart production design of the film. There’s no warmth to the team’s office implying close-quarters, intimacy, or energy. There’s no coolness or energy to the club sequences to convey liveliness or opulence. The entire film feels shot as a means of coming off easy to view no matter what settings a television is set at, rather than the theatrical experience. Though this isn’t a one-to-one, as a fellow confidence dramedy, the series of both Leverage and Leverage: Redemption possess a similar look and feel, though with more fluidity in lighting based on circumstance and shifting tone. In fact, one might even say that that TNT-now-Amazon Freevee has a very distinctive look, even if meant to be viewed on any set in any home across the globe. Because of a similar approach with Thieves, it lacks anything remarking distinction.
Speaking of the television look, the narrative often entrenches the characters with history that it dares not explore, often giving the audience breadcrumbs with which to infer relationship. It’s not uncommon for this practice in film, especially when it’s not entirely necessary to know all the intricate details of a character in order to understand what they value and how they work. Oddly, though, the way in which characters are introduced, function, and interact with each other reads very much like the pilot of a television series in which Thieves only serves as the launchpad for future stories and greater character development, rather than being concerned with the here-and-now. If I knew that there would be more time with the characters coming, the character investigation or surface-level development wouldn’t appear as shallow as they do.
Unfortunately, the direction follows a similarly frustrating path whether in regular scenework or in the action. There’s an early sequence in which Annabel and her partner Eddie (Carlos Miranda) approach tech specialist Lucille (Jaina Lee Ortiz) about coming to work with them in which, during the slightly heated exchange as we learn of their history together, the camera largely stays behind Lucille so that Annabel and Eddie are the focus, utilizing a oner to capture the scene. Stylistically, it’s an interesting choice that makes the scene feel emotionally heavy, but the fact that we can’t engage with Ortiz’s physical reaction means that much of that emotion falls flat. Later, when things start to go south (as they do in heist films), the action is hardly believable with frequent edits seemingly masking the casts’ inability to work the fight choreography, the exception being Ortiz’s work, which is captured with far fewer edits, enabling the audience to see a proper beat-down. By the by, there’re a few flourishes within Nardolillo’s work that suggest imagination and cleverness such as a smartly executed spiral shot giving way to the kind of coolness that amplifies something as simple as a walk.
**Be advised that in order to discuss some of the issues present in the film, direct discussion of narrative aspects will be explored until the next marked section. Spoiler alert.**
Raised in a Reform Jewish household, there are certain things that have been engrained within me. One of them is the phrase “Never Forget.” In my (current) 42 years, I’ve experienced racism, read about Holocaust denial, learned about dog whistles, and am currently watching the same bastards my grandfathers fought in World War II regain power in the United States in the form of hate groups like the Proud Boys. I’ve learned that there are intentional acts and unintentional acts of antisemitism and I do believe that it’s not with intention that Righteous Thieves possesses several moments of antisemitism, all of which could’ve been handled by simply restructuring or retitling certain aspects. The organization that Annabel works for (or runs? It’s unclear because she’s retired but also still the CEO at the start?) is called “The Syndicate,” which makes it sound like a secret organization that operates in the shadows, the very thing that antisemites accuse the Jewish people of doing. Especially as we learn that it’s because of The Syndicate that Lucille (Jaina Lee Ortiz) is on a work-release program with the FBI instead of prison, specifically that The Syndicate has influence in the state capital (film takes place in Los Angeles), it perpetuates the notion that Jews run the government. By giving the organization a different name or none at all and simply describing it as being a private organization funded by and run through the vision of Holocaust survivor Josef Goodman (Mitch Poulos), making it a single-person not a collective (or cabal, which is itself an antisemitic dog whistle), would remove the promotion of racial stereotypes and caricature.
Additionally, the constant reminders of how many Jews died or their treatment by the Nazis often comes off as heavy-handed, as if the opening sequence and introduction to Josef and Annabel didn’t already cover it. Nazis don’t care that six million Jews died during World War II, so trying to wave that at them as Annabel does to Otto is about the audience, not the characters, feeling something, brandishing cultural pain for narrative use. It’s also worth mentioning that five million others died at the hands of the Nazis and those lives aren’t mentioned once. Add in the fact that Annabel purposefully brings on a new member of the team with the intention of using them as a fall guy, even if Annabel herself isn’t Jewish, by action and association, the character appears to be perpetuating the stereotype of people not being able to trust a Jewish person. Cons often included double-crosses, sometimes even expected ones, but the leader of the group is supposed to want the whole team to walk away unscathed, even when they anticipate and plan for betrayal.
This last issue may seem like a nitpick compared to the above, but it bothers me that the goal of The Syndicate isn’t to steal back possessions stolen by the Nazis because it’s the right thing to do, but to fund their ability to do so. Can’t steal if you have no funding, which I get, except that the film specifically points out that the paintings are given to a museum, allowing for a tax write-off for The Syndicate which will be invested by the organization to fund future projects. In short, rather than give the paintings to Josef’s family (it’s not mentioned if he has any as the character isn’t seen again since the opening and its implied that he passed away), the organization made themselves rich off of them. The operators of Leverage International operate off of an alternative revenue stream and I have no ill-will with profiting off the misfortune of proper bastards, but the way in which it’s explained and expressed here only encourages the blowing of the dog whistle.
**End of spoiler section.**
If Righteous Thieves ends up being your bag, awesome. Enjoy it! With the home release, fans of the film are treated to a 24-minute “Making of” featurette that’ll answer all kinds of questions you might have from the ideation, direction, casting, stuntwork, and more. It’s the kind of bonus feature we don’t get as often with films quickly sent to home video and it makes my heart happy to see it. Especially because it affords the audience to see the intentionality of the filmmakers, cast, and crew, to hear their joy and positivity, making it easier to see that the things that stand out to me weren’t done with malicious intent but with specificity in order to create what they saw as a powerful and entertaining production. Considering my favorite Spike Lee joint is Inside Man (2006), I take no issue with anyone trying to rip off Nazis or to reclaim stolen goods (from Nazis or any other imperial colonial group. Heck, it’s to be encouraged. I cannot deny that even the most well-intentioned don’t always get things right and, for me, this tale is one to be left in the vault.
Righteous Thieves Special Features:
- Coming For It All: Making Righteous Thieves (24:22)
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital March 10th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD April 18th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate Righteous Thieves webpage.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.
Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews, streaming
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