Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Sting Is All Right, But It's Not The Greatest Hustle Film I've Ever Seen!

The Good: Decent plot, Great two-disc DVD presentation, Decent acting
The Bad: Light on character development, Predictable
The Basics: A fun film, The Sting is a surprisingly direct swindle movie with the audience on the inside of an operation to rip off a corrupt gambler.

As I continue to watch every film that won the coveted Best Picture Oscar, I have found myself having a truly mixed reaction to many of the cinematic experiences I have witnessed. I've had to slow the project down a little as I've needed to do some work on my new on-line store, but I have still managed to squeeze in some movie watching (even more problematic when my DVD player died). Yesterday, as I awaited the library opening and I found myself with a couple of hours to kill, I put in The Sting, which has long been hailed to me as one of the greatest American films ever made. Sadly, having seen a whole lot of American cinema, my reaction was more "meh" than "wow."

This is not to say that The Sting is not a good movie; it is. The problem I found was that it was only good. Earlier this year, others were comparing Duplicity to The Sting, so I actually went into the movie excited, hoping I could re-pan Duplicity for being a half-rate rip-off. But the films are two very different films in the "hustle" genre. Whereas most contemporary movies about grifters and hustlers hinge on a reversal at the end, The Sting is remarkably straightforward, with the only real surprises coming to the characters within the film as opposed to the audience. The result is a fun movie, but one that hardly seems timeless by any standard. Of course, it's nice to see a young Robert Redford and a mature Paul Newman working together, but it doesn't make up for the generally mediocre plot and character development of the movie.

In Joliet, Illinois, Johnny Hooker helps scam a gangster's courier with the help of his friend and fellow grifter, Luther Coleman. Luther sees this as an opportunity to retire and he prepares to leave his life of crime behind given he now has enough cash to last him some time. Unfortunately for Coleman, the money belonged to a Chicago crime boss, Lonnegan. Fearing for his own life, Hooker heads to Chicago on a tip from Luther to apprentice from a master grifter, Henry Gondorff. Gondorff, originally reluctant gets on board after ripping Lonnegan off for thousands of dollars in a card game. He sends Hooker to collect his money and Hooker begins playing the long con on Lonnegan.

Gondorff employs a team of people who loathe Lonnegan to create a betting parlor and Hooker gives Lonnegan inside tips on horses that will win in distant races and Lonnegan begins betting at Gondorff's faux parlor. Hooker leads Lonnegan through big tips on long odds, preparing him for a half-million dollar heist that will take a fortune from Lonnegan and pay off the entire ensemble. But as the feds move in on the operation, everyone is put in danger and there is a chance Hooker and Gondorff will both go down for their lives of crime!

The problem is that The Sting is pretty much a straightforward story. Hooker is out for revenge for his friend's death and he wants to scam Lonnegan for that. It is dressed up with Hooker and Gondorff assuming aliases and a bunch of peripheral characters roaming around the three principles, but essentially, Hooker sets a goal and the rest of the movie is about him achieving that goal. This is a strong contrast with contemporary swindler movies as there are no major twists here. For sure, there is a whole subplot involving the FBI, but it is a forgettable subplot and one which does not truly make the viewer feel Hooker or Gondorff are being actually menaced.

Moreover, The Sting is another movie where the acting is arguably better than the actual characters in the movie. Robert Redford is bright-eyed and charming as Hooker, but there's little flair or emotional empathy with the character. For sure, we feel bad that Luther gets killed and I wanted to see him avenged, but this is pretty much the long, slow way around a revenge story. Those looking for something as exciting as Payback (reviewed here!) will be left disappointed.

As well, the romantic subplots seem far more contrived than anything else. Late in the movie, a woman is thrown in at Hooker and while it is nice to see some women in this otherwise masculine cast, they seem like they are padding out the cast and none of them are even remotely interesting characters. While it makes Gondorff a better character to have his relationship, the woman tossed in for Hooker adds nothing except a sense that we did not truly know him given that earlier in the movie, he fancied another woman.

Newman and Redford have great chemistry and their scenes make the film entertaining, if not particularly original or incredible. Instead, they make a fun pair of new buddies that keep the viewer watching, but it is more out of respect for their celebrity than their characters. They play off one another and Newman and Redford have a clear on-camera respect for one another, but they work with what they have and while Hooker has a decent revenge motive, Gondorff tags along with a less inspired line of taking Lonnegan because it is something to do.

What makes The Sting well worth watching and buying is the bonus disc. The two-disc Anniversary edition comes with a huge behind-the-scenes featurette that investigates the entire process of creating the film. The level of detail and participation from actors in the featurette makes for almost a completely different work and it is impressive how much work went into making this film. The Sting has a distinct style with a 1930s sense of storytelling and cinematography and that retro sensibility was painstakingly created and my appreciation for it only grew by watching the bonus materials.

That said, The Sting is still pretty average and while it is good, it is hard to believe this was considered great ever.

For other movies involving swindles and subterfuge, please check out my reviews of:
The Southland Tales

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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