Instead, they've come together for a ho-hum heist picture that constructs some adequate caper scenes, but has no grander themes or deeper implications. The Score can be suspenseful when it needs to be, but still proves a waste of enormous potential.
The story is quickly summarized. De Niro plays a professional safe cracker who owns a Montreal jazz club and wishes to go legit and romance airline stewardess Angela Bassett. With the stately bulk and conspiratorial delivery of Sidney Greenstreet, fence Marlon Brando has an irresistible proposition: to pilfer a priceless gold scepter impounded at the Montreal customs house for a multi-million dollar payoff.
Despite the facility's security, the crooks have an inside man -- Edward Norton, a hotshot would-be player who's passing as a mentally disabled janitor named Brian. Bristling at Norton's brash manner, De Niro agrees to go for the treasure, even though the job becomes increasingly complicated and risky.
It's more interesting to watch The Score as being symbolic of the artists' careers than the clichéd conflicts of their characters. When Norton demands respect, or when De Niro tells him, "Talent means nothing in this game if you don't make the right choices," they could be talking about themselves as professional actors.
Norton's role can be likened to his audition for posterity, his bid to go toe-to-toe with a pair of screen icons. Certainly his handicapped act is a show-offy piece of technique, but Norton undeniably executes it well, making Brian's limited motions and thick-throated voice seem lived in and natural.
De Niro, who in real life owns restaurants, not jazz clubs, brings a kind of joyless professionalism to the role. He tells Norton that he never takes risks, which echoes the busy actor's own uninspiring career of late. Here he reflects no exhilaration in stealing or tenderness toward the underused Bassett, only a weary impatience to retire. In The Score, he reveals little distinction between playing an emotionally muffled role and giving an emotionally muffled performance.
Brando is fey and feisty for his part, which lasts roughly four and a half scenes (reportedly filmed in three weeks). He amusingly expresses mock shock when De Niro demands a bigger cut, and thoughtfully muses on mortality while sitting beside an empty indoor swimming pool. But apart from his legendary name, does he bring anything to the table that, say, Bob Hoskins or James Gandolfini don't -- for a fraction of the money and the fuss?
The Score disappoints further when you recall how De Niro's career began as a kind of conversation with Brando. Each won Oscars for the role of Vito Corleone, and in Raging Bull, De Niro recited Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech as Jake LaMotta. Putting them on screen should be a page in the cinematic history books instead of a footnote. When they're together, De Niro does little but observe Brando hoist himself onto barstools.
Many movie greats have played professional thieves, from Cary Grant to Sean Connery to Gene Hackman (in David Mamet's upcoming Heist), but the genre is driven far more by directors than actors. Capers make superb means of generating suspense, often by crisply cutting between parallel actions and focusing on high-tech gizmos in action. Frank Oz, better known for voicing Miss Piggy and directing comedies like In and Out, puts together some decent set pieces, as when De Niro and Norton rendezvous in a public park to get crucial security codes from a twitchy insider.
The opening theft, and later scenes of De Niro casing the Customs House from underground prove rather slack, but the final heist itself generates plenty of tension, with De Niro moving literally around security cameras, hanging from pulleys and breaking into multiple cages to get to a supposedly impregnable safe. The stuffed predators in the storage area where the safe is kept add a nicely ominous note.
The Score also livens up in a few scenes with Jeff (Andrew Walker), a high-strung hacker who lives in his mother's basement. Though it offers some twists at the end, The Score loses points for giving its famed cast so little to work with. But don't just blame the script, blame the famous stars as well, who could have come together for something more ambitious. At this point in their careers, maybe we shouldn't expect any more from De Niro and Brando than rote professionalism and quirky cameos, which may be the film's saddest message of all.