Heist (2001) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 109 min.

Cast: Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Patti LuPone
Director: David Mamet

Screenplay: David Mamet
Review published November 14, 2001

Just when I thought David Mamet (State and Main, The Winslow Boy) was finally starting to hit his stride as a director, he shows his amateurishness once again.  However, this is not as surprising as the downturn in the quality of his usually excellent writing.  Heist is done by a man who has no concept of his own characters, miscasting almost every role in the film, and giving them lines that seem just as out of place.  It is a fairly straightforward heist thriller, with all the twists and turns you'd expect, yet the unevenness of the dialogue and the stiffness of the action give this film a sense of weirdness I don't think Mamet intended.

Gene Hackman (The Replacements, Under Suspicion) plays Joe Moore, an aging yet brilliant criminal nearing the end of his career.  He pulls off a jewelry gig, yet his face is shown on a video camera and he must lay low and perhaps finally retire.  This doesn't sit as well for the big fish fence named Bergman (DeVito, The Big Kahuna), who is unsatisfied with the last assignment and wants Moore and crew to not only pull off one more complicated heist, but to allow his son along for the ride.  With mistrust and shaky alliances in the mix, and some double-crossings, the heist becomes more complicated than Moore would ever care for.

Heist is yet another film in Mamet's short career as writer/director to employ a series of double-double-crosses, where the film seems to tip the upper hand in one person's direction, yet it was the victim who actually is the winner.  From his first film, House of Games, to the Spanish Prisoner, to even films in which he didn't direct, The Edge and Ronin, Mamet seems consumed by plot twists and as Hitchcock might say "Playing the audience like a piano".  It can be fun if it works, but if you know Mamet's style you can spot his "tells" long before they happen, and the result is predictable. 

Even with the predictability, the film could still have been a good film if the actors actually fit the mold of their characters.  Hackman seems at ease playing the crafty genius, Moore, yet we know Hackman too well to believe he is anything more than mildly intelligent.  While DeVito has played some hotheads in the past (Louie De Palma on "Taxi", Sam Stone in Ruthless People, and the Penguin in Batman Returns), we have known hi much of the last 20 years as a sweet-natured guy that having him reprise his role as a hothead badass just doesn't wash anymore.  Rebecca Pidgeon (Shopgirl, The Lodger), who only gets to appear in such prominent roles because she is Mamet's wife, has to play Hackman's sexy wife, and while Pidgeon isn't an unattractive woman, she is a far cry from the Sharon Stone archetype of cool, evil sexiness the role requires.  Sam Rockwell (Charlie's Angels, Galaxy Quest) meets the same failings, with his goofy looking moustache and dopey demeanor in this film, he doesn't seem like the seductive type to woo Pidgeon for even a second.

While Mamet fails in his casting, he also fails in his directing and writing.  Mamet is clearly uneasy with how to shoot action scenes, with fistfights looking as if the kicker or punch-thrower misses his mark by three feet, or shootouts where the person being shot falls back from the impact as if he were on roller skates.  This awkwardness is equally matched by head-scratching dialogue that makes you snicker rather than believe it's really hip ("as cute as a Chinese baby", etc.)  With actors not believable in their roles, and characters not believable with their lines, Heist suffers as a result from a lack of believability on every level that is crucial for a plot with as many twists and turns as this offers.

Heist is ultimately a disappointment for a writer who has done much better, a director who hasn't grasped the technical aspects of cinema, and a group of actors who are all past their prime.  It's a group of old dogs clinging to an old-fashioned style of cinema and you can almost hear the creak and see the cobwebs in every frame of this dinosaur.   If you have the need to watch a good modern-day heist flick, I will steer you in the direction of one that is done right, The Score.  To use a bad line from the screenplay itself for my own purposes, Heist is about as good as its name is long.

Qwipster's rating:

2001 Vince Leo