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BRANDO. DE NIRO. NORTON. 'NUF CED.

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by Ben Kenigsberg The best thing about "The Score" is the way it unites three great actors from three generations in the same movie. All three have memorably explored the underbelly ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

The best thing about

"The Score"

is the way it unites three great actors from three generations in the same movie. All three have memorably explored the underbelly of society in different capacities, but have always taken care to give their characters a vulnerability -- an additional layer of complexity -- that wouldn't read well on the faces of other actors.

At 77, Marlon Brando's still edgy. In "The Score," he plays a crime boss named Max who wants nothing more than to get Nick (Robert De Niro) involved in a heist. Max has hidden motives for his actions, and when they're revealed in a dialogue with De Niro, Brando has a look of helplessness that causes the movie to lift, though only momentarily, into the annals of cinema history. Like Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront," who's partly responsible for the murder in that film's opening sequence, Max is cocky but cautious.

De Niro's more restrained than usual, though often perfectly so, perhaps because he's playing a thankless clich role: the guy who promises his girlfriend he'll quit his life of crime after doing "one last job." There's a great deal of old pro/hothead protg sparring in "The Score." And the sparring is handled so well here, you'd think it was a new concept.

Nick's sidekick is Jack (Edward Norton), a thief with remarkable patience and a penchant for acting. In scenes where Nick and Jack are talking -- either in pupil-student or man-to-man form -- De Niro gives Nick a subtly condescending tone. His lectures are like those of a grandfather teaching his progeny the tricks of the family business, with warnings speckled throughout.

Norton's just about the most versatile actor today. As Jack, he needs to pose as a mentally retarded janitor, and does so completely believably. He finds just the right note of nervousness when improvising a chat with a Montreal cop, trying to prevent the discovery of Nick, who's about to emerge from a sewer. Norton has such a fiery intensity that he nearly overshadows Brando and De Niro. That's not a canny way of saying he's overacting; that's a high compliment.

That's what's right with "The Score."

But alas, this is one of these films where the actors rise above the material, and occasionally breathe life into it. It isn't bad, per se. It's just not that original, or twisty.

Take the scenes that deal with Nick's relationship with his girlfriend (Angela Bassett). Even De Niro can't find a fresh way to tell her that he has to pull off one last heist before they can run away together. (Is this giving anyone else a "Guys & Dolls" vibe?) And Bassett is given an even harder job: trying to create a three-dimensional character in two or three scenes. Either her near-lead billing was a mistake, or her scenes were mostly left on the cutting room floor.

It's just as well, actually. Nick's more defined by his actions in the heat of the moment than by his girlfriend. We already know he has a human side. Much of the movie is so tense that the melodrama does nothing but let us catch our breath -- precisely at the moments when we should be breathless.

Such melodrama fills the first half-hour of the movie, which crawls along until we get to know Jack. From there, with scenes of exposition owing to Jules Dassin's "Rififi," the movie builds momentum.

In exactly two sequences, former comedy director Frank "Yoda" Oz proves that he knows how to set up a scene and make it suspenseful. An exchange of money for security codes in a public park, an idea so overused it's a potential pratfall, is handled deftly thanks to skillful editing. And the lengthy climactic set piece, which owes a lot to Dassin's "Topkapi" (Dassin has quite the legacy), gives us just enough details to chew on to make nail-chewing a necessity. Oz hasn't mastered pacing, but in "The Score," he shows, as he did in "Bowfinger" and "In & Out," that he's capable of directing more than Muppets.

The script, by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith from a story by Salem and Daniel E. Taylor, has its ups and downs. The downs comprise, primarily, the unoriginal parts. The script also doesn't make all the details of the robbery clear. We learn enough for the movie to make sense, but not quite enough to play along.

The crackling dialogue is considerably better. For instance, Nick tells Max that this will be his last job. "I'm gonna believe that when the pigs eat my brother," Max replies. Sure, it doesn't make any sense, but it sounds cool.

"Talent means nothing in this game," Nick tells Jack. "You want my advice? Make a list of everything you want now, and then spend the next 25 years of your life getting it."

If I were Norton, on my list, I'd include starring in a movie with actors like Brando and De Niro, as he's their natural successor. Of course, he's already done that.