Broken English Productions, 2023
Anthony Nardolillo and Michael Corcoran
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Quite often, we feel our stories are isolated, that no one cares about them but us. While it can sometimes seem difficult to find a sympathetic audience, there is indeed such an audience. Occasionally, we must figure out how to navigate to them and present our stories in ways that elicit empathy. This is apparently what happened with 20-something year-old Annabel in 1985, when 60-something year-old Josef catches her breaking into his Los Angeles home and rather than shooting her, makes a deal with her. I say apparently because the film then cuts to present-day, where Annabel is the head of an all-male Jewish syndicate focused on recovering art, jewelry, and other property stolen by Nazis during the Holocaust in Anthony Nardolillo’s Righteous Thieves.
This cut in the movie remains problematic for me because it robs the film of a much-needed emotional element. Clearly, Annabel, played by Lisa Vidal (Being Mary Jane, The Event), has dedicated her life to Josef’s cause, which suggests he had quite the effect on her. But what was that like? What conversations did they have? How did their bond develop over the subsequent years – and for how many years? Ultimately, I need to see this relationship unfold – not be told about it through a line from Annabel here and there throughout the film. The absence of this essential element made the film feel inauthentic.
Despite the absence of this emotional element, Righteous Thieves is nonetheless an entertaining story about a team of mostly longtime friends coming together to recover valuable paintings stolen from the Jewish community by Nazis during the Holocaust. Led by Annabel, the friends consist of one White and four Hispanic persons combining their safe-cracking, high-tech, and fighting talents to infiltrate the highly secure facility where the items are stored. While 60 Minutes , CBS News, and PBS segments typically focus on institutions and private collectors (Nazis and their heirs) in Europe, Righteous Thieves targets a German holder in upscale Los Angeles who brags to even casual acquaintances about his expensive collection of paintings. As I wrote in my review of Your Honor, good dramatic villains do not call attention to themselves. Denzel Washington’s character in American Gangster was livid that his girlfriend’s gift to him in the form of a white fur coat brought him the unwanted attention of authorities, who until then had no clue about him.
The villain in Righteous Thieves, Otto, played by Brian Cousins (Greenlight, Southland), brings to mind his counterpart in Bad Boys II, who was neither menacing nor scary; just a bully bolstered by the millions from his ill-gotten gains. In one scene in a nightclub, a drink is spilled on Otto’s phone and out of frustration, he throws it at his bodyguard and yells “Clean it up, clean it up!” This lack of composure is uncharacteristic of an ominous villain. A villain that engages in silly, random, and over-the-top things disrespects audience members, making it difficult for them to buy into the movie. Believable antagonists such as the ones in American Gangster, the original Beverly Hills Cop and even the original Bad Boys are cool, menacing, and thus, scary. They show the audience what they are capable of doing and how far they will go to get what they want. Otto fell far, far short of this bar.
While lacking the authenticity of emotion and a menacing antagonist, Righteous Thieves is entertaining and brings up a major theme that rings quite true. It demonstrates that people other than those of Jewish background care deeply about the travesties of the Holocaust and feel strongly that stolen assets should be returned to their rightful owners forthwith.
The film reminds me of the television series, Leverage, that ran from 2008-2012, where the team of two women and three men frequently used advanced technology, costumes, and slick fighting to infiltrate high society in order to recover items or expose truths. Played by Timothy Hutton, Nathan Ford led the team with the impetus of gaining leverage for their clients who rarely had any due to their lack of money or class status. Righteous Thieves is quite similar in substance and entertainment value. The teams of five differed only in ethnic and gender composition and team leader. It would not be surprising if Righteous Thieves morphed into a sequel or two, or perhaps even migrated to television as a series.