There are cars that can catch the eyes of people who see them. Some, such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis, use sleek lines and raw power to gain attention. Others, though, use are nowhere near that league. The Volkswagen Beetle is the classic go-to here, but there is another, the Austin Mini Cooper.
First released in 1959, the Mini Cooper and the Mini Cooper S were a new approach to vehicle design after the boats of the Forties and Fifties, a compact car before the concept was known, using front wheel drive to save interior space for passengers and cargo. The car became an icon in Britain. While the engine didn’t produce much horsepower compared to larger vehicles, the Mini was also lighter. Tuning the engine and removing weight improved the power-to-weight ration even more, leading to the Mini winning the Monte Carlo Rally three times in the Sixties.
Naturally, when something becomes an icon, studios will want to use it as a draw. The Italian Job, released in 1969, featured three Minis in the climactic scene, leading a merry chase from the Italian police. The film starred Michael Caine as Charlie Crocker and co-starred Noël Coward as Mr. Bridger, a crime lord running his criminal empire while in prison, Benny Hill as computer expert Prof. Peach, Raf Vallone as Italian mob boss Altabani, and Maggy Blye as Charlie’s girlfriend Lorna, and featured music by Quincy Jones. The film begins with a leisurely drive through the Italian Alps as the credits appear, with Roger Beckermann (Rossano Brazzi) on his way home to Britain from Turin. However, Altabani and the Italian Mob has other ideas and place an much heavier bulldozer at the exit of a tunnel. Beckermann has no way to avoid the bulldozer and is killed in the resulting explosion.
Beckermann, though, had sent the key part of his reason to be in Turin ahead of him. He has a plan to steal $4 million in gold from the Italians, and Charlie Crocker is the lucky guy chosen. Charlie, though, has just left one of Her Majesty’s penetentiaries and is being watched, not so much by a parole officer but by Bridger’s people on the outside. When Charlie reads over the plans, he first approaches Bridger looking for a crew. Bridger isn’t as impressed, mainly because Charlie broke back into prison to talk to him. However, Bridger is convinced to help out when he realizes that there is pride involved; Fiat will be using the gold to pay China to open a factory.
There are several elements to the plan. One is getting a new program into the traffic control centre in Turin. Since it’s 1969, breaking through ICE with a Chinese virus isn’t in the realm of possibility. Instead, Charlie recruits Prof. Peach to go in and set the tape up. With traffic tied up to the point where the armoured car carrying the gold can be stopped where the crew wants, a means of getting in is needed. Fortunately, explosives do exist, though overkill is a risk. Finally, with traffic tied up, especially when there’s a football game happening, the escape route needs to be done in a way that can carry $4 million in gold bars is needed. Thus, the Minis, three of them, with drivers, going where no car has gone before.
Charlie has his crew run through the plans, making sure that any errors can be corrected before going live. The plan is intricate, but doable, and the crew sets off to Turin. However, the Italian Mob has caught wind and has arranged a greeting at the tunnel where Beckermann was killed. Charlie was going to have three fast cars, his Aston-Martin DB-4 and two Jaguar E-types. Altabani makes his point by crushing the Jaguars and having a bulldozer push the DB-4 down the cliff, then tells the Brits to leave.
Setbacks are setbacks, not a reason to abort the plan. The fast cars were a backup plan. The primary plan still involves the Minis, and now the heist is personal. Altabani only stopped four of the crew, including Charlie. The rest arrived in Turin and began their prep work. Charlie arrives after sending Lorna home to be safe, then gets the plan into gear. Prof. Peach gets the program going at the traffic control centre. Everyone is in place. The gold begins its trip.
When the time comes, the program causes mass traffic chaos. The police escort, including an armoured fighting vehicle with water cannon, gets cut off from the gold, and the crew strikes. The truck carrying the gold is hijacked, the gold transferred to the Minis, and the escape is on. With the traffic chaos, the larger vehicles can’t give chase. The police Fiats, though, can try. The escape route involves getting through the city through back alleys, shopping arcades, the Fiat factory’s rooftop test track, and Turin’s landmarks before heading into a sewer pipe before escaping the police.
The crew meets up again, with a modified bus waiting to pick up the Minis while on the move. The gold is removed from the cars which are then tossed out the bus one at a time down the mountainside in the Alps. However, the bus driver is taking the corners too fast, and the film ends on a literal cliffhanger, with the bus delicately balanced, the front end over the road with the crew providing counterweight to the gold at the rear over the drop down.
The Italian Job was a comedy heist movie. The focus is on the job, but Jones’ music provides a light tone to the film. Sure, things get dark a few times, but the goal was a light comedy. Little details stand out. The protagonists all use British vehicles; the opposition uses Italian cars. The one exception, Beckermann, was driving a Lamborghini Miura when he was killed by Altabani. Michael Caine is the star of the film and the centre of attention. The crew is there to fill roles but there’s not depth given to any of them other than Prof. Peach.
The typical time between an original film and its remake is about one generation, about 20 to 30 years. The popularity of the original movie and changes in the technologies used in film making tends to lead to a remake. It’s not a hard and fast rule, though. The remake of The Italian Job came 34 years later, a little on the outside of a generation. The impetus, though, wasn’t a change in movie technology but in the design of the Mini. In 2001, BMW acquired the Rover Motor Group, the British company that was producing the Mini Cooper lines. BMW’s goal was to get lines of SUVs and compact and sub-compact cars. The Mini was kept in its own subdivision, separate from BMW’s main automotive production, but the vehicle was given a revamp, updating its style to reflect modern sensibilities. The result was a compact car that could still perform. The update, though, did make the new Mini a little larger than the older models.
The 2003 remake starred Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Crocker, Donald Sutherland as John Bridger, Charlize Theron as John’s daughter Stella, Jason Statham as “Handsome Rob”, Mos Def as “Left Ear”, Seth Green as “Napster”, and Edward Norton as Steve Frazelli. The movie begins in Venice, as the crew – Charlie, Bridger, Rob, Left Ear, Napster, and Steve – begin a heist. The goal, $34 million in gold stolen by Italian gangsters. The heist is precisely planned, down to where the safe is, thanks to Napster creating a 3-D model on his laptop. Explosives are set and blown, and the safe holding the gold falls several stories down to where the crew is waiting.
Handsome Rob leads the mobsters on a chase through the Venetian canals, with a safe in plain sight on the boat. The safe, though, is underwater beneath the mobster’s hideout. Bridger, the safecracker of the crew, opens the safe and the gold bars are transferred to underwater sleds. Rob evades the mobsters and the police, and Charlie, Bridger, and the gold slip out underneath the investigating police boats. The crew gathers back up at the Austrian border in the Alps and celebrate.
The celebration is cut short when Steve turns on the crew and kills Bridger. Rob drives the getaway van off the bridge into the freezing water. Steve’s men open fire. Seeing no one coming up for air, Steve and his men leave with the gold. He forgot one detail – there’s still SCUBA gear in the van. The crew shares the air tank and wait for the bullets to stop, then a bit longer.
A year later, Charlie learns that Steve has changed his name and has started selling off the gold. Steve has a home in the LA hills, lavishly appointed. Charlie calls the crew back together. The only problem, the crew is lacking a safecracker. Bridger had been the only member of the crew with the skills. Enter Stella. Stella is working in LA as a professional locksmith specializing in cracking modern safes, the ones using electronics. Her rep is such that the police will call her in to open the toughest safes. Charlie, unaware of who Stella is, recruits her. She accepts, seeing the job as a way to avenge her father.
With the full crew, Charlie begins gathering the information needed to pull off the theft. Stella, being the only person that Steve won’t recognize, is the lucky one to go into the mansion.. To get her in, Handsome Rob charms a cable company tech out of her van and shirt for Stella to use. Left Ear cases the outer security and finds the security booth and the dogs. He also finds the weak point in Steve’s Internet connection, the junction box for all cable services for the subscribers in the neighbourhood. Left Ear opens the lock and unhooks the cable. Steve discovers the outage quickly; even his TV screens are the colour of the port over Chiba City. Stella goes in with a body cam hidden in a pin, checking out the problem like a tech would. Steve hits on her and, despite her revulsion, accepts a date. The idea is that with him out being stood up, the crew can break in and liberate the gold.
No plan survives contact with the enemy. What Charlie is unaware of is Steve is trying to liquidate more of the gold. Steve’s middleman makes too many connections and realizes where the gold is from, but as he’s denying, gets shot for his effort. The middleman is the brother of the head of a Ukrainian mob in LA. The night of the heist, one of Steve’s neighbours is holding a party. The crew aborts the heist; the explosives they were going to use would be heard and get attention.
It’s not long before a new opportunity appears. Steve needs to skip town, fast, and he needs the gold with him. The only way to do so is to truck the gold out in an armoured car. The crew is ready to adjust their plans. Napster already has access to the LA traffic control. Left Ear has the explosives he was going to use in Plan A. Even the Minis are ready to go. All they need to do is wait for Steve’s gold to leave his mansion.
Steve, though, knows how the crew works. He’s ready for what thay could throw at him and counters by having three armoured cars, each with an escort. All three leave following the same route into LA from the hills. What Steve didn’t count on was Napster’s control over the traffic cameras. Napster determines which truck has the gold before they split up and starts changing traffic patterns in LA to direct the one with the gold to where the crew’s trap is. In the stalled traffic, with the escort separated from the truck, and Steve unable to see through a building, explosives go off, much like the Italian job at the beginning. The armoured car falls through to the subway where Stella breaks into the safe, an older one with a tumbler. The gold is stolen and the Minis go off.
The chase is on as Steve gets the other escort riders to chase the crew’s Minis through the subway, then out through a sewer drain into the Los Angeles River. While even the new Minis can go where most cars can’t, motorcycles can do the same thing. Charlie, though, was prepared and the Minis give the escort riders the slip. Eluding a helicopter is another problem; Steve gets his pilot to follow from above. Charlie realizes that he’s pursuing still and breaks off from the others. Steve chases Charlie, blocking him in a garage before Crocker finds an escape route to the rendezvous.
At the train yards, the rest of the crew have driven into a the getaway rail car. Charlie joins soon after, with Steve not too far behind in a stolen pickup truck, the helicopter having been damaged during Charlie’s escape. Steve finds the rail car and, with some of his armed men, confront the crew. Charlie has one last twist, though, and the crew is able to escape with enough money to retire on in the manner they want.
The remake of The Italian Job could have gone the grrity reboot direction. To the credit of the writers and the director, it didn’t. The tone is not as light as the original, but there is humour, American instead of British. Charlie’s crew isn’t as big in the remake, but there’s more depth to them. The reason for the heist went from national pride to revenge. The titular Italian job was at the beginning instead of being the big scene at the end. There are differences, but the differences aren’t that important. A lot can be chalked up to the difference in storytelling in the 34 years between original and remake.
The remake did get the key scene right. The chase with the Minis followed the same beats as the original, with the Minis going through a shopping concourse, down into the subway, out through a sewer drain, and even across a field. The sewer drain sequence was almost identical to the original’s, with the main difference being the model of Mini used. There was even a nice touch with Stella driving a classic Mini in the red and white of the one used in the original. The main heist even kept the same beats. Hacking into traffic control, separating the truck with the gold from the escort, rival criminal mob, all are present in both films. The difference is technology, something that the remake used without having the new tech be the solution.
Casting was strong for the remake. While Mark Wahlberg is no Michael Caine, who really is? Giving depth to the rest of the crew allowed for byplay between the characters. The motives for the entire crew is laid out. The cast played to their strengths and looked like they were having fun on the set. The remake is very much character driven, even if it’s heading to the Mini chase.
The 2003 version of The Italian Job manges to be its own film while still being a remake. Charlie Crocker is recognizable in both and the key element, the escape in the Minis, is preserved. Even with the change of location, the new version keeps to the tone and fun of the original.