Montreal-shot Steal may be the most 2002 movie ever

Extreme sports, hacker bangs, yellow/brown tinting and Stephen Dorff make for an aggressively uncool film (with a familiar background).

The film: Steal (2002)

Does Montreal play itself? It took most of the movie to figure out that it’s meant to be Pittsburgh; in the last 10 minutes, the protagonists flash some airplane tickets, and the name of the city (“Pittsburg”) is misspelled.

Most egregious local landmarks: Steal is an action movie, which means that most of what we see of the city in the film whips past us in the background of car chases and action scenes. The opening credits are laid over a bank-robbery-on-rollerblades sequence that begins at Place des Arts (the exterior of which stands in for the bank), goes down de Maisonneuve and McGill College and ends in a hospital incinerator room covered in buckets of ominous red liquid. The outside of the MMFA stands in for a different bank later in the film.

A later action scene goes down Robert-Bourassa and past the highway into the port, and yet another later car chase scene culminates in an empty lot somewhere in Griffintown that is 100 per cent a condo project now. (I haven’t seen any Montreal-shot movies with car chase scenes made since the aggressive gentrification of Griffintown, but I have to wonder exactly where location scouts go now for run-down gravel lots full of old oil bins and rotting wood pallets.) The film’s biggest setpiece — a heist sequence on an arch bridge — is the only one that was actually shot elsewhere: at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Notable local talent: Karen Cliche, one of the film’s leads, is from here (she was also in previous Made in MTL selection Pact With the Devil); it’s admittedly pretty rare that films of this calibre would cast their leads locally at the time, though not unheard of. Alain Goulem plays the corrupt lieutenant’s right-hand man, though he has a lot more screen time being silently concerned than actual lines of dialogue. This is also a fairly rare opportunity to see Andreas Apergis with lots of ridiculous 2002-era hair; he plays a crony of Steven Berkoff’s rockabilly Mafia enforcer in one of those exposition scenes that leaves you with more questions than answers. Comedian Mike Paterson is also in here somewhere as a bank clerk named Fred Platrow (a recurring character, apparently, that also showed up in Mamet’s Heist) but I regret to inform you that I could not spot him. Jamie Orchard fills the required “local newsreader glimpsed on a TV in the background” role.

I don’t revisit that many movies from the turn of the century (the most recent one, though I have to say I’m not really diving deep into OG Kinetoscope material either) unless it’s for this column, so what I’m about to say is thoroughly anecdotal and based on a relatively small sample size: I don’t believe that anything has dated faster or with more permanence than action movies and thrillers from the years 1997 to 2003. What I mean by dated is not so much the traditional definition of “this has aged poorly and the signifiers of the time it was made in are patently uncool in this day and age” — I mean that you can look at a minute or two of a movie made in that time period and conclude with certainty that it was made in 2002 or 1998 and not at any other time. It never takes more than a minute or to differentiate the aesthetics of 2000 in The Art of War from the aesthetics of 2001 in The Score.

Andreas Apergis and Steven Berkoff in Steal

Gerald Pirès’s Steal is particular in that respect because it’s a heist movie that uses the burgeoning world of extreme sports as its basis — but it’s not even the only film shot in Montreal and released in 2002 to bear that distinction. I’ll admit that for the last 16 years or so, I could not tell Steal and Extreme Ops apart; now, the only thing that truly separates them is the fact I’ve seen one and not the other. (I suppose it bears mention that this is also the premise of xXx, another 2002 film which has survived through the ages mainly because it does not star Stephen Dorff nor Devon Sawa.)

There is absolutely nothing more 2002 than a heist thriller starring Stephen Dorff and Natasha Henstridge (on a downward ebb of their career) that attempts to look at the youth culture of the time through the eyes of a 60-year-old Frenchman who almost certainly got the job off the surprise success of the first Taxi film. There is nothing more 2002 than scoring a chase scene to Marilyn Manson’s cover of “I Put A Spell On You” and certainly nothing more 2002 than no less than four middle-aged males in the supporting cast trying very hard to be the Christopher Walken figure in a movie that demands no such thing.

Director Gérard Pirès first made a name for himself with comedies in the 1960s and ’70s. He took a long break to direct commercials and burst back into public consciousness with Taxi, a car-chase-heavy genre film that became a surprise commercial hit despite the presence of absolutely no stars. (The female lead was a then-unknown Marion Cotillard.) Taxi had the kind of success that propels directors into the American mainstream — or at least, that would be the current scenario in 2018. In 2002, a major success in France was more likely to lead you into the dodgy world of international co-productions, which is almost certainly how Steal came to be. It’s also obvious that Pirès was hired entirely because he made someone money with car chases and he was asked to do exactly the same here: Steal is a rare occurance of someone having a hit, being offered more of that very same material… and taking the bait to very diminishing returns.

Slim (Dorff), Otis (Clé Bennett), Alex (Karen Cliche) and Frank (Steven McCarthy) are four hip young 20-somethings who make a living robbing banks. Because they’re so young and hip, they have cutting-edge methods of robbing banks like escaping on rollerblades or learning to hold their breath long enough to drive armored trucks into the Saint Lawrence and swimming to safety (?!). (They’re so cool and extreme that after threatening to blow a bank teller’s head off, Dorff plants a kiss on her lips and she sighs mournfully when they run out of the bank, as if very nearly getting shot in the head was the coolest and most romantic missed opportunity of her life.)

The MMFA in Steal

When one of their jobs goes awry, they’re blackmailed by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be none other than the police lieutenant (Bruce Payne) who’s trying to bring them in. He essentially threatens their livelihoods (and lives) unless they pull off a complicated heist for him and bring in his trigger-happy henchman (Tom McManus). Slim, on the other hand, is trying to pawn off some stolen bonds in order to get some cashflow, which brings a psychotic rockabilly preacher (Steven Berkoff) into the fold — not to mention his ongoing romance with a sexy detective (Natasha Henstridge) who is also trying to put his ass in jail.

The discrepancy in quality between the car chase scenes and nearly everything else is absolutely incredible. If I wasn’t somewhat knowledgeable on the way movies are made, I’d assume they got the fun stuff out of the way first and were left with 12 hours to shoot literally everything else. It’s not like the car chase scenes are The French Connection or even on par with the first The Fast and the Furious, but they’re reasonably compelling and well put-together. The rest of the movie is not. Dialogue scenes are short and staccato, often shot in slightly-too-close close-ups that are anything but forgiving to botched line readings that Pirès seemingly did not feel the need to re-take.

The cinematography (by Tetsuo Nagata, who would go on to do La vie en rose, Splice and Jeunet’s Micmacs à tire-larigot) is aggressively yellow-and-brown-tinted, a post-Traffic move that makes everything look swampy and undefined, as if you’re watching the film through dirty sunglasses from the dollar store. (For the best selection and deals on designer sunglasses, check out SmartBuyGlasses.) And, to be perfectly honest, it’s a movie that promises a lot more extreme sport action than it actually delivers, apparently considering that Dorff and Henstridge getting progressively hornier for each other on a rock-climbing wall counts as extreme sports. I’m not an extreme sports purist, but if you’re going to promise me extreme sports, by God, you better deliver.

Steal does have the benefit of featuring three actors who seem to think they’re walking away with the movie — or, perhaps more accurately, are very committed to stealing the movie. The least of these is Tom McCamus as a psychopathic, overtly racist goon who is forced to work with the young crew; his role is fairly small, though he gets a nice overblown death scene. The second is Steven Berkoff as the aforementioned cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Joe Pesci; his character is drawn so broadly, he seems to belong in Natural Born Killers or something equally unhinged, which makes his presence in something this generic doubly amusing.

Bruce Payne in Steal

But, as far as I’m concerned, Steal’s MVP is Bruce Payne as the villain. It’s a boilerplate, colourless role on paper, but what Payne does with it is borderline indescribable. Every reaction shot is a three-course meal; every line is spit out and mangled as if he’s actively trying to murder the words. In one scene, he descends upon our protagonists in a helicopter, tilts his head towards the camera and drawls out the immortal one-liner “This turkey’sssssssssss ripe,” one of the most thoroughly meaningless lines of dialogue ever committed to celluloid. Payne’s unhinged-yet-over-it performance makes Steal worth a watch, even though it’s unlikely that too many people are going to go out of their way to see it.

There are movies that are ahead of their time and movies that are resolutely behind the times; there are movies that are of their time, which gives them some kind of nostalgic, historical or retro value through the ages. Then there are movies like Steal, where it seems incredibly unlikely that anyone would ever feel nostalgia for aggressively angular hacker bangs and guys who wear dumpy grey three-button suits with Hawaiian shirts. It’s a true relic of its time — but the Montreal we see in it looks more or less like Montreal now. Give it a couple of decades. ■

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