Heist Movie Review
One would think there could be no way to freshen up a plot as shopworn as the "one last big heist before retirement." By all rights, this should be the stuff of straight-to-video B movies by now.
But this year has seen three such pictures so intelligent, intricate and resourceful that by their very diversity they prove there's a lot of life left in the genre -- if a movie is in the right hands.
Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando staged a break-in at the Montreal Customs House in thrilling, high-gloss "The Score." Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone faced off as rival cockney toughs working a bank job in the edgy, oily "Sexy Beast." And now comes "Heist" -- a gritty, exhilaratingly tense thriller that benefits from a most elaborate array of rapid-fire twists and the sharp, delicious, cadence of dialogue by writer-director David Mamet.
The film opens with the precision burglary of a high-end jeweler's by a well-oiled team of professional thieves. One, posing as a cafe waitress, slips mickeys into the store's daily cappuccino order. Another drops a small bomb in a trash can a half-block away, causing a distraction. Three of them then invade the store, setting a timer for four minutes (presumably the anticipated police response time) then busting display cases and picking safes in a pressure-cooker scene made all the more intense by the fact that the heist's mastermind (Gene Hackman) comes face-to-face with a hidden camera. He spends his four minutes trying to bust through the steel-reinforced cage around the security system's VCRs.
Regrouping after delivering the goods to their fence (Danny DeVito), Hackman realizes: "I got my picture taken. It's time to check out." But DeVito dupes him. He won't pay Hackman's crew until they do one more job that makes the jewelry store look like a cakewalk.
Mamet's dexterous cast absorbs itself in cogent, enigmatic performances that have you wondering every minute whom to trust. Double-crosses and manifold plot manipulations accumulate in a domino effect so exhaustingly swift and shrewd that your brain is too stimulated to think about loopholes -- and there are most definitely loopholes -- until the movie's already over.
Hackman is subtly spectacular as the haggard but resilient career thief with plans to literally sail off into the sunset on his custom boat packed with bullion booty from "the Swiss thing" -- the multifarious, daring and incredibly detailed cargo plane heist assigned by DeVito and in the works throughout the picture.
Mamet's wife, muse and often stilted leading lady Rebecca Pidgeon gives a standout performance as Hackman's Machiavellian girlfriend, a smoky, sultry tomboy-tough siren of a femme fatale. Sam Rockwell ("Charlie's Angels") is perfectly cast as DeVito's high strung, slimeball nephew who comes so close to blowing the gang's cover that a convoluted plan is concocted to get him out of the picture. The terrifically imposing Delroy Lindo and Mamet regular Ricky Jay are strong as well, playing the two partners Hackman trusts implicitly.
The most fascinating thing about all these characters is that when they've been swindled, they don't waste an ounce of energy dwelling on it or getting angry -- they immediately start scheming their retaliation and reclamation. It's all part of the business. Such interpersonal machination is exactly why Mamet's handiwork makes "Heist" so invigorating.
If there is a problem with the film, it's that the twists come so fast and furiously that after an hour of screen time, they're old hat. You become so used to second-guessing everyone and everything that all the surprises lose their punch -- most of all the anti-climactic surprise ending.
But that fact doesn't diminish the Mamet's ability to stimulate the intellect throughout the picture, and especially as the big score unfolds in all its exquisite complexity.