by A.J. Hakari
I’m surprised that David Mamet took as long as he did to make 2001’s Heist. By the time of the picture’s release, the famed penner of plays and doctor of scripts had racked up an impressive repertoire of tales involving con games, most of which were told from the victim’s perspective. These were stories about how easily those who assumed dominant societal roles could fleece anyone with even the mildest submissive streak, yet few were directly focused on the perpetrators of said schemes. Heist aims to change that and shed some thematic weight at the same time, in favor of supplying audience members with as no-frills an example of its namesake genre as possible. Mamet’s goal here isn’t so much to explore the psychology of those who con for a living but to craft a straight thriller, concisely presenting the expected twists and turns with its author’s patented linguistic flourishes. Considering the wealth of talent behind and in front of the camera, some viewers may find Heist to be traditional to a fault, yet its engaging plot and entertainingly elaborate turns of phrase should spell a good time for most.
Just when Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Joe is a career criminal, a veteran thief who virtually wrote the book on pulling off the most complicated robberies. But in the process of busting into a jeweler’s storefront, his face is captured on camera, an incident that has him convinced that his stealing days are over. Surprisingly, Joe feels relieved by this, opting to use his newfound sense of freedom to set out with his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) on a long-awaited sailing adventure. However, his diminutive fence Mickey (Danny DeVito) has another plan in store; having spent a small fortune on setting up the theft of a Swiss gold shipment, he expects Joe and his crew to finish the job. Our man wants nothing to do with the heist, but when all his efforts to trick his way out of the gig end in failure and plunge his team into further hot water, he has no other choice but to comply. Forced to recruit Mickey’s volatile nephew Jimmy (Sam Rockwell), Joe puts his plans for this one last score into motion, despite the best efforts of Jimmy’s hot temper and his crew’s waning confidence in his skills to derail them.
Heist doesn’t have as overtly escapist of a tone as many flicks of its kind tend to receive, but that’s what helps it stand out. The layers of grit applied here are mostly convincing, making the action seem more grounded than usual without detracting from the pure joy of seeing improbable swindles come together. You get the idea that these aren’t expertly-trained commandos at work; this is a gang that screws up, panics, and ends up having to improvise in some respect, regardless of how well-planned their jobs are in advance. Joe’s troupe also isn’t the kind to back down after having one pulled over on them, a sleeping giant that the greedy villains foolishly insist on waking up over and over. The concept of letting go and knowing one’s limitations is at the heart of Heist, showing how much better one’s mortality fares when they decide their coffers are full enough. Anything can happen when somebody can’t shake the dollar signs in their eyes, and it’s this notion that fuels the intensity behind the picture’s robbery sequences; we’re never sure of whether the baddies or Joe will make the first stab at gaining the upper hand. Despite the film’s scant gunplay and pyrotechnics, scenes like these are a great help in preserving a suspenseful mood, as they come tinged with a seat-of-their-pants urgency that has you constantly wondering how things will play out for the characters.
Also, this being a production conceived by Mamet, the biggest star in Heist next to its satisfyingly-executed capers is its dialogue. These lines go out of their way to not resemble regular human speech in any way, but I’ll be damned if it still doesn’t sound really cool. Barring the odd bad apple, Mamet has always had a knack for assembling actors who can make his signature kind of wordplay fly, and Heist is no exception. “When he goes to bed, sheep count him,” says Ricky Jay’s distraction artist about Joe, and the behavior he exhibits over the course of the story proves it. Hackman portrays Joe as a force to be reckoned with, a cool customer when everything’s going according to plan but a terror when he’s crossed or stuff goes to pot. Seeing him get back in his own way at those who keep trying to screw him over at every turn is a pleasure, and revisiting this film over ten years after Hackman stepped out of the Hollywood spotlight really made me miss the guy. DeVito’s performance is plenty intense itself, filling Mickey with enough piss and vinegar to render the character fearsome in spite of his stature. Jay and Delroy Lindo also do fine work as members of Joe’s crew, but Pidgeon proves to be one of the movie’s weakest links. She’s far too stiff to play the femme fatale card, and there isn’t much foundation to the arc Fran is given; the path she takes doesn’t make a lick of sense, included seemingly just to make Joe look a little better when all’s said and done.
I adored Heist when I first caught it at the theater, and while my enthusiasm has lessened since then, it was still a fun watch. The screenplay contains some great chestnuts (“Everybody needs money — that’s why they call it money!“), the seasoned ensemble is more often than not on the ball, and although the visuals and methodical pacing may strike certain viewers as blah, it all goes towards giving the film its credible flair. Heist isn’t an all-time great addition to the genre that inspired its title, but boy, does it work like a charm.