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‘The Score’ both dramatic, thrilling

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THE SCORE —*** 1/2 — Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett, Gary Farmer, Chris Messina, Andrew Walker; rated R (profanity, brief violence, vulgarity, brief sex); see the "On the Screen" column on Page W2 for complete listings of local theaters.

Let's be honest. A cast this good — Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando — could have simply read the phone book aloud, or they might even have taken a bad script (say, the one for "Scary Movie 2") and still made it work.

But fortunately, "The Score" is better than that. A whole lot better. In fact, this dramatic thriller is a real oddity, since it fulfills both of its purposes — to be both dramatic and thrilling. It's also one of the smartest pieces of filmmaking to come from a major studio this year.

And all the tales of on-the-set acrimony aside — such as stories about the co-stars not getting along, as well as director Frank Oz's much-discussed difficulties working with Marlon Brando — this odd bit of alchemy neatly incorporates all of its seemingly disparate elements.

Mind you, "The Score" is not a perfect movie. There are a couple of large holes in the plot, particularly some things that happen toward the end. But it's so much fun watching this cast work together that it really doesn't matter.

The film's title refers to a difficult but profitable crime that professional thief Nick Wells (Robert De Niro) is mulling over. With the money he'd get for his participation, Nick would finally be able to buy the Montreal jazz club he runs and settle down with his stewardess girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett).

So, in spite of the risks, Nick agrees to do the job, but only if he can call the shots. He still has some doubts about it, though. For one thing, he's got a new partner, an "inside man" named Jack Teller (played by the De Niro-of-his-generation Edward Norton). And Jack manages to rankle Nick with his cocky, know-it-all attitude.

Also, there seems to be something that Nick's fence and financial partner Max (Brando) isn't telling him. And when it appears that the object they're trying to steal — a French national treasure — is about to be moved, this motley crew has to set the plans in motion much sooner than they anticipated.

Though he's made a career of directing comedies like "Bowfinger" and "In & Out," Oz smoothly makes the transition to a very different genre. In particular, he does a nice job of ratcheting up the tension in the film's second half. He also gets some very able support from cinematographer Rob Hahn and composer Howard Shore, whose jazzy score fits the tone of the film perfectly.

But this is the cast's film to make or break, and the stars are up to the challenge.

The now-hammy Brando underplays his role (at least by his standards), allowing De Niro and Norton to dominate, and their believable on-screen give-and-take relationship is refreshing. Sadly, Bassett doesn't get much screen time, which is a shame.

"The Score" is rated R for frequent use of strong profanity, brief violence (some gunfire and a beating), scattered use of crude sexual slang terms and brief sexual fumblings. Running time: 123 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com