THE BIG STEAL (1990) yields average amusement.


The Big Steal is a rarity in Australian cinema: A well-directed and entertaining teen film that holds up next to any John Hughes film yet feels uniquely Australian. Should this film be a model for the Australian film industry?The story has a certain pop cultural mythic resonance in its simplicity: Danny (Ben Mendelsohn in his first leading role) is obsessed with cars and girls and does whatever it takes to get both. The complication is that Danny is ripped off by a sleazy car salesman (Steve Bisley) and the girl of his dreams (Claudia Karvan) has a particularly protective father. Aspects of the film have not aged well at all, for example the soundtrack’s heavy reliance on Boom Crash Opera, though the Phil Judd/Tim Finn stuff has a certain retro charm. What really hasn’t aged well is the comedy which relies on the audience laughing at its quirky characters, particularly Danny’s parents whose quirks include tai chi and playing Scrabble. In a cinematic age where pedophilia, mental illness and teen pregancy are all fodder for indie comedies, playing Scrabble is hardly absurd enough to rate as laughter-worthy.

But this film still works thanks to the confident direction of Nadia Tass. Without making a big deal about it, Nadia Tass establishes a real sense of place. Australian directors almost never set their stories in a place recognisable as Melbourne (eg. The Bank) and when they do, they often try to make it falsely exciting (e.g. TV show Rush). The Big Steal is set in the Melbourne I know with trams, Chinatown parking lots and suburbs that aren’t pretentiously depicted as grim, depressing eyesores. She also knows where to put the camera and how to edit her film to tell the story efficiently and eloquently.

The acting across the board is excellent with Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan particularly charismatic as the teen lovers. It’s lucky too, because the performances lift what are otherwise underdrawn characters. Danny, as written, doesn’t really have a personality beyond being obsessed with cars and girls. In fact, he’s pretty much a boring dweeb and when you think about it, it’s hard to see why the spunky and intelligent Joanna would go out with him. The romance may be badly written but it still works, mainly because Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan are such good actors and so attractive that it just seems logical that they should be together.

So The Big Steal works as a piece of crowd-pleasing commercial cinema. If Jim Schembri had his way, we’d be seeing ten of these a year. But is that what we really need? The Big Steal is, at best, on par with The Karate Kid (and probably not quite as good since it lacks the trump card of Pat Morita. With such rich national cinemas in places such as France, Italy, Korea and Taiwan, I don’t think that the Australian’s film industry’s best hope is to pump out ten Karate Kids a year. Not when the Americans are so good at it already.


The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984)


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