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Trust me on this -- one complaint you'll be unlikely to hear a lot this summer is this: "Gee 'The Italian Job' just isn't as good as the original."

The starting team on the original 1969 caper film was: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Maggie Blye, Benny Hill and Raf Vallone. (Yes, Noel Coward and Benny Hill in the same movie.) The starters on the new 2003 team are Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Seth Green.

So which team is better?

A confession: personally I haven't the foggiest. I never saw the original 1969 "The Italian Job." Nor did I ever know anyone who did -- or who talked about it later. In a lifetime of talking about movies with movie people of all varieties of passions, I've never heard the original movie come up. And everyone -- I mean everyone -- I knew in 1969 talked about movies nonstop.

But we were talking about movies like "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy" and "The Wild Bunch" and "The Damned" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" and still talking about "Bonnie and Clyde" from two years before. We were in the middle of a movie revolution, for heaven's sake. Talking about an elaborate British heist film notable for its giant traffic jam would have been a bit like mooning over the dire fate of a bad Jason Alexander sitcom while watching the Oscars.

So here, from team two and MTV/action director F. Gary Gray, we have a brand new "The Italian Job," a remake of a film very few people have seen. Granted, the cast is a good three steps down the prestige ladder from Peter Collinson's original (Wahlberg, Sutherland and Edward Norton are fine fellows but they'll never sub for Caine, Coward and Vallone) but it's a much better time in 2003 for a busy, winning, numbskull heist movie like "The Italian Job."

With all the digital and comic misfires and successful but disappointing sequels clogging up your megaplex these days, it's almost a spiritual relief to find a popcorn movie that does exactly what it sets out to do, no more no less.

Actually, if you must know the truth, the real star of the new "Italian Job" isn't anyone in the cast, it's a car -- the zippy, snappy, Mini Cooper (our era's equivalent of the original Volkswagen beetle) tricked out for a big gold bullion heist with souped-up engines and as much storage room as can be hollowed out of the back. The caravan of Mini Coopers drives up and down the staircases and hallways of Los Angeles mansions, over the city's highways and through the underground transit tunnels and sewage system.

The bullion thieves driving them -- Theron, especially -- look as if they're having the time of their action movie lives. And, let's face it, you don't need all that much more to make an American movie fun to watch.

Just in case you do, here's the plot: a bunch of master thieves pull off an extremely ingenious and complex gold bullion heist in a Venetian palazzo -- one that depends on a safe falling three floors into a Venetian canal and a subsequent splash-'em-up boat chase around the gondolas and vaporetti in the canals.

They're led by Sutherland, a world-weary cynic who's reached the age when the ability to dispense sage advice in a witty way is almost as pleasurable as the possession of $35 million in gold bullion. There's trouble in paradise: one of the thieves -- played by Norton in a bad guy mustache -- gets greedy. He knocks off part of the team, including Sutherland, and absconds with the gold himself.

Which leaves you with a fairly dandy twofer of a genre movie -- a revenge movie and a heist movie combined. The remaining members of the team, along with the murdered boss' ultra-sleek gorgeous daughter (Theron) converge on Los Angeles to see if they can heist the bullion back from the greedy S.O.B. who was their former cohort.

There is, of course, a very simple reason why a) so many heist caper films have been made in movie history and, b) why they're so often merry and watchable.

Movies themselves are something of a big, elaborately planned heist performed by pros with nothing more on their minds than being in the right place at the right time and giving 110 percent.

Stealing gold bullion -- or a roomful of diamonds or Cezannes -- isn't much different from finding really ingenious ways to confiscate a large movie audience's money and attention. Movie people understand thieves and heists as they do few other subjects (the ability, say, to master and perform Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," for instance.)

By now, Wahlberg's very presence in a movie is a reassurance that nothing resembling heavy lifting will be attempted. He's become a hood ornament on a piece of junk -- one that either runs like a top as this one does, or clunks, wheezes and dies, as have most of his recent movies. No one can deny that, in very different ways, Theron and Norton do dress up a movie.

But so, too, rather unexpectedly, does a bit of snap in the dialogue, courtesy of Wayne and Donna Powers whose Showtime miniseries "Out of Control" begins this Sunday. It's hard not to appreciate a movie which opens up with this bit of pre-heist dialogue between two nervous thieves in a square in Venice:

"How do you feel?"


"You see those columns behind you? That's where they used to string up people who felt fine."

As with all those zippy, careening Mini Coopers, such sudden bits of crunchy dialogue make "The Italian Job" exactly as enjoyable as intended.

Imagine that.

* * *
Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Donald Sutherland in an action remake of a 1969 caper movie with two big gold bullion heists. Directed by F. Gary Gray.
Rated PG-13, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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