When you think of great actors teaming up for the first time onscreen, you think immediately of Michael Mann’s Heat. For the first ever pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Mann constructed a centerpiece scene surrounded by a three hour epic movie. The takeaway is that a film of massive import had to exist in order to support the weight of its two stars. That’s why it’s intriguingly odd that De Niro’s other marquee matchup, with none other than Marlon Brando (and with method heir apparent Edward Norton to boot), takes place in a nifty but formulaic mid-budget studio caper flick.
Frank Oz is a solid director with more than a few classics under his belt—his three-movie run from Little Shop of Horrors to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to What About Bob? is the kind of streak most filmmakers can only hope for—but no one is likely to describe him as an auteur the way we do Mann. Yet he may have been the exact right person for the job here, telling the tale of a nearly retired thief (De Niro) coaxed by his reliable fence (Brando) to pull one last job with an eager up and comer (Norton).
The Score, with its layered writing credits that imply a typical studio patch job, is exactly the type of screenplay into which Oz can breathe some life and respectability while never aiming for more than a pleasant evening at the movies. With the subsequent lack of pretense, distractions or crutches, the film becomes welcomingly dwarfed by its cast. For two hours, we simply get to watch Brando, De Niro and Norton (not to mention the great Angela Bassett) do what they do best. What better way to showcase great acting than to extract it out of mediocre material?