David Mamet has done a bit of everything in Hollywood from writing to directing to producing. Whatever he is doing though, I can say this. Even with my little knowledge or background info, I knew that Mamet is a talented if eccentric guy. Playing on some genre conventions that will no doubt seem very familiar at times, Mamet directs the simply-titled 2001 film, Heist.
While pulling off an intricate diamond exchange robbery with his team, veteran thief Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is caught on a security camera and plans to retire from the business. His plans are brought to a halt though when his fence, Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito), refuses to share his half of the take from the diamond robbery. He'll give him the money, provided he takes on one more job. Everything is set down to the smallest details for the job -- robbing an airplane of a heavy shipment of Swiss gold -- but Joe smells a rat. It seems too easy, especially when Mickey insists his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), "tag along" to keep an eye on things. It won't be easy getting out unscathed, but an old pro like Joe has some tricks too.
No matter the talent -- or lack of -- I'll sit down and watch a heist film. Almost always there is some attempt to throw a new wrinkle into the familiar genre, what new job/scheme can be pulled off against the odds? Mamet doesn't go for that new wrinkle, sticking with the old reliables and doing it well. We see familiar characters -- the thief on his last job, his long-time partner, the smooth-talking con man, the shady fence, the femme fatale -- and familiar situations throughout. 'Heist' isn't interested in a BIG story with a huge scale. It stays on a more personal level and has a more believable feel. A shootout is quick and violent, betrayals come left and right, and there's always a twist around the next corner. Subdued or understated isn't the right word, but it's a professionally done story that knows where it wants to get.
I'll save the flaws for later, but the positives are obvious; namely, the cast. No matter the role, I'll give Gene Hackman a chance, and he rarely disappoints. His character -- the veteran thief doing his last job -- is the definition of a stock character we've seen countless times before, but Hackman breathes some new life into that familiar part. I especially liked his partnership with Delroy Lindo's Bob Blane, another experienced, fiery thief who works with Joe like a brother. There few scenes together (just them) provide the most memorable, enjoyable scenes in the whole movie. Also on Joe's team are Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. Mamet) as Fran, Joe's wife, and Ricky Jay as Pinky, the chubby, fast-talking con artist who can do a little bit of everything. DeVito and Rockwell (sporting a porno-esque mustache) are solid villains, DeVito's Mickey hamming it up a bit in the sinister intensity department, Rockwell the more sly bad guy. A lot of talent here that all works well together.
So what then goes wrong here? I really can't put my finger on it for sure. I was never bored, enjoyed it all the way to the end, and would recommend it.....but. Yeah, it's missing something, something that stops it from being a great or even just a really good movie. As is, it's a good movie and nothing more. Is it too familiar? Maybe, but that can't be it. It is definitely a movie that might improve on second and multiple viewings. At times, the acting is a little over-dramatic -- almost comical in its delivery -- and Hackman's Joe could possibly be the world's smartest man the way he sees betrayals coming and dances around them. No one....no one...could be that smart, I don't care how "experienced" you are. In being clever though, some major plotholes developed, ones that didn't quite make sense. There are times the movie knows it's smart, well-written and clever. That's the risk you play with movies like this. It knows it is all those things and wants to show how smart and clever it is.
Still, it's a heist movie and a pretty decent one at that. The opening heist in the diamond/jewelry exchange is a gem (yes, pun intended), quick and to the point in its effectiveness. The same goes for the heist of the airliner packed with gold. The build-up is intense in its quietness, as is the heist. Very little dialogue is used at all in the extended sequence which is unique in its setting. How many on-the-tarmac heists have you seen? I can honesty say 'One.' The twists and turns and betrayals get to be a little much in the last 30 minutes, but the ending -- especially the final shot -- is particularly memorable. So what to say about this one? Flawed, but in a good way.
Heist <---trailer (2001): ** 1/2 /****