Friday at the Movies: The Italian Job

By: Bridget Clerkin June 8, 2018
DMV.ORG's Friday at the Movies is a semi-regular breakdown of our favorite movie car chases of all time. This week: The Italian Job.

We here at DMV.ORG like to think we’re pretty worldly. (Forget math. Vehicle registration is the true universal language.) So it’s no wonder we’re so drawn to the 2003 rendition of The Italian Job, an American remake of a British film starring a South African actress driving European vehicles in Venice, Italy and California.

Of course, other than the name, the most exotic thing about the movie is the cars it features—nearly every main character sports their own Mini Cooper, which was designed in the UK in the 1950s. (Though MINI is now owned by German auto giant BMW. Globalization is now!)

And since summertime is travel season—and the only thing more continental than this film is the breakfast included at a moderately-priced hotel—we figured it was about time to put The Italian Job through our Friday night movie analysis.

Keep reading to see how the flick stacks up on our global rating scale and to find out how producers fit tall drink of water Charlize Theron into such a tiny car.

The Plot

The Italian Job may seem like the world’s longest Mini Cooper commercial, but it’s actually a heist movie. And in the grand tradition of heist movies, it gets complicated—fast.

Suffice it to say there’s a lot of gold involved, some double-crossing criminals, an elaborate revenge plot, an elaborate counter-revenge plot, and Charlize Theron cracking safes.

Things heat up when Edward Norton—playing criminal mastermind and hideous moustache enthusiast Steve Frazelli—decides to keep more than his fair share of the $35 million in gold bars he helped steal from an Italian bank. But in order to ensure the loot will be all his, he has to get rid of “Marky” Mark Wahlberg (AKA Charlie Croker) and the rest of the heist team.

Since the movie would end right around the 10-minute mark if his plot was successful, the team survives the assassination attempt, unbeknownst to Steve. And the whole thing really comes back to haunt him when the group bands together to seek sweet, sweet revenge.

Of course, all of that is just a brilliant excuse to set up one of the most unique car chase scenes in movie history, which kicks off after the team successfully steals back the gold and must then outmaneuver a helicopter-borne Frazelli and dozens of his motorcycle-bound goons. But before we can to cut to the chase, we should really discuss the cars involved.

The Cars

As previously insinuated, this movie could easily be renamed “101 Things You Can Do With a Mini Cooper.” In fact, the autos get significantly more screen time in The Italian Job than Italy itself. And we’re totally okay with that.

Some of the things the Minis can do is navigate a sharp turn onto Hollywood Boulevard, weave in and out of shocked pedestrians, and zip down the stairs leading to the Los Angeles subway—and look good while doing it. (The red, white, and blue models used in the scene all sport MINI’s famous white roof. That was the only way the cars were sold at the time. The company began optioning black and body-colored roofs in 2005.)

All told, 32 Minis were used throughout the shooting, including several very specially modified models.

In fact, the world’s first electric Mini Cooper was invented for the film to accommodate the City of Angels.

During the coolest part of the big final chase, the Minis flaunt the size they were named after by cruising through L.A. subway tunnels. The stunts were all real, but to get them on film, the crew had to promise not to use any internal combustion engines while shooting in the very unique location. (The fear was that gas could leak onto the tracks and wreak havoc.)

To pull off the scene, two Minis were given battery-powered engines, which not only gave the film crew the all-clear, but also made the machines that much zippier.

Another one of the cars was given a strange twist specifically meant to stay off camera.

While the cast members were actually responsible for a lion’s share of their own driving (including Charlize Theron, who was pegged as the best driver on set by co-star and fellow auto enthusiast Jason Statham), some of the scenes were still a little too tricky to leave to non-professionals.

The solution was a two-steering-wheeled Mini Cooper—one for the stunt driver to actually maneuver the car, and the other a dummy wheel used by the actor. (And though it never found the Hollywood limelight, the car received its due in the end: it’s now part of the MINI factory tour at the company’s plant in Oxford, England.)

The Chase

Before shooting the chase, director F. Gary Gray studied dozens of car commercials and several classics like The French Connection and Ronin to get the right concept in his head—and it shows. The scenes are shadowy and moody but move at a clip, with just enough shaky-cam to keep audiences invested in the action.

The trick is especially helpful when that action involves something most reasonable people try to avoid at all costs: massive traffic jams.

In the film, the heist crew uses L.A.’s notorious traffic issues to its advantage, intentionally manufacturing a back-up to thwart pursuers while the Minis gleefully zip through the mess. (More than 300 cars were used to fill in the enormous parking lot better known as Los Angeles, with the crew completely taking over Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue for several days to pull off the shoot.)

To help them get by behind the wheel, each of the primary actors also received a crash course in stunt driving, though Charlize Theron may have liked the idea too much. The actress, who plays safe cracker extraordinaire Stella Bridger in the film, supposedly received two speeding tickets during her time filming the movie. She later said the adrenaline had gotten into her blood and she found it difficult to slow down when away from the set. (Good thing she’s such a savvy navigator.)

Though even driving at top speed, it would take some time to get through some of the sets built for the film. When recreating the Los Angeles Metro for some close-up shots and stunt work, the tunnel created by the crew was so large it couldn’t fit in any soundstage in Los Angeles.

Instead, filming had to move to the hangar where the first space shuttle was assembled—though the building looked much different being used by Hollywood than it did when NASA was there.

The Rating

The Italian Job is a fun caper film with lots of fantastic driving, but we’re still disturbed by Edward Norton’s facial hair—and have a bit of traffic jam PTSD.

For that, we’ll give the movie a 7 out of 10, with a bonus Nikola Tesla Award for making battery-powered Mini Coopers look so sweet.

Check out more of our Friday at the Movies features:

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