The only reason to see a movie like "Gone in Sixty Seconds" is to watch cars go fast and get fucked up. It would be silly to expect a Jerry Bruckheimer production to have anything approaching humanity, characterization or a story that occupied your attention any more than a takeout menu shoved in your mailbox. And it's about as telling a comment as can be made on the state of big-budget action movies that a major studio has spent millions to remake a 1974 cheapie that played drive-ins and grind houses. The title refers to how rapidly the movie's gang of car-thief heroes can boost an auto, though it could just as easily apply to how long the movie itself lingers in your mind afterward.
The stray bits of off-the-wall humor and the talent of the cast that has been assembled (and mostly wasted) keep threatening to make the picture odder than it is. But they don't work. Director Dominic Sena ("Kalifornia") and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg ("Con Air") go strictly by the numbers. But what numbers? The rules of narrative and character development that govern the sort of movies Bruckheimer makes bear the same relation to the very idea of movies that the pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" do to human beings.
But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to getting at least some moments of brain-dead visceral fun out of this picture. Nicolas Cage plays a retired car thief whose younger brother, Giovanni Ribisi, has followed him into the business -- disastrously. The younger crook has screwed up a big job for a major badass (Christopher Eccleston), and Cage is pressed into fulfilling the job to save his brother's life. In descending order of plot importance, there's also Delroy Lindo as the cop who never managed to bust Cage and is itching to bring him in, Robert Duvall as the wise old pro whom Cage enlists to mastermind the job and Angelina Jolie as the squeeze Cage left behind when he went straight.
All the conflicts between old ties and living an honest life are laughably bad. You could chop them out of the movie without anyone caring, especially since they add a flabby half-hour and get in the way of the only thing anyone wants to see. To reiterate: watch cars go fast and get fucked up. Cage and crew have to steal 50 high-grade cars in a night to help the baddie meet the order he's promised to a foreign buyer.
Showing a bunch of top-flight car thieves at work requires a director who knows how to impart information in razor-thin shards. Sena just falls back on clichid fast cutting that barely gives you enough time to see what the characters are doing or the felonious gizmos they're using to do it. Still, you realize that the movie has at least got something of a hook in you when you wince at the bumps or scrapes the stolen cars take.
Watching people steal things is one of the true illicit pleasures of the movies, a chance to leave behind all the morality that governs day-to-day life. Speed is another one of those pleasures. So there's a kick to be had in seeing the thieves effortlessly turn over engines and glide Mercedes and Mustangs away from their rightful owners, or in watching cars screaming down city streets or suddenly going airborne.
Sena does get some things right during crunch time, when Lindo is trailing Cage in a high-speed chase. But you wish the shots were held long enough that you could appreciate the tight spaces that Cage is maneuvering his stolen wheels in and out of. Why go to the trouble of staging all manner of elaborate stunts if you don't have a chance to really see them? But cinematographer Paul Cameron does make up for it by giving us some shots from Cage's point of view and using the wide screen to show the obstacles ahead stretching out in front of him. There are some nifty effects when the camera zooms in and the cars accelerate; you feel as if you're being yanked out of your seat with them. The sight of police cars smacking into each other or careening into the path of a wrecking ball is indefensible fun. And the stunt that climaxes the chase is a pip. I won't give it away, but it does provoke a sort of dum-dum awe. The best moment is one of the quietest -- when the thieves prepare for their night of carnapping by having what for them amounts to a moment of prayer, focusing their energies by listening to War's "Low Rider."
Cage didn't deserve the pissy swipe that Sean Penn took at him last year when he said that Cage was no longer an actor. Nobody who ever decided to go for the paycheck of being a big action-movie star ever did it as idiosyncratically as Cage. Watch him in "The Rock." Not a single choice he makes is predictable or ordinary. And it takes a very smart actor to overplay the upright hero the way he did in "Con Air," as if he were both a parodist and his own straight man. He's coasting on presence here and it's not really his fault. He doesn't condescend to Rosenberg's "sincere" moments, but maybe he should have.
Even in as nothing a role as the hero's ex, Jolie doesn't have enough to do. She looks great, though (stop the presses), with her blond dreadlocks and that dirty, full-lipped grin. She gets to make good use of her blissful pucker in the moment when she outwits Lindo and blows him a sarcastic kiss. And big Chi McBride acquits himself in the role of Black Comic Relief, getting off the movie's best jokes.
The only person who manages to give a performance is Ribisi. Already this year, Ribisi has been terrific as the kid trying to make it selling crooked investments in the entertaining "Boiler Room," and though he isn't seen in "The Virgin Suicides," his narration is as much an emotional presence as anything in that lovely movie. The beaten-out melancholy of his line readings is the perfect accompaniment to Sofia Coppola's tone of languid lyricism. Here, with a scraggly beard and hair that looks as if it has been combed with bacon, Ribisi manages to combine the sort of cocky resentment that lets you know his character is in over his head with the inexperience that makes you feel protective of him. He has become one of the actors to be excited about in American movies.
"Gone in 60 Seconds" is a time-waster with some enjoyably empty zip. But watching it in a swanky new theater with stadium seating and a huge screen feels out of place. It needs to be seen at a drive-in, where you can sit turning the steering wheel and going "vroom! vroom!" out of the hearing of the people around you. There you can appreciate it for what it is: a toddler seat for people old enough to know better.