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Heist   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Mamet
Writer: David Mamet
Cast: Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Patti LuPone, Sam Rockwell.

Review by Rob Vaux

As a caper movie, Heist is as good as any you'll see. As a David Mamet movie, it leaves something to be desired. Mamet set the bar for caper pictures with the likes of House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, using breathtaking dialogue and meaty characters to weave astounding tales of cons and double crosses. He normally eats films like this for breakfast, and Heist ultimately proves no exception... even though it chokes a little on the way down.

Ironically, the principle problem stems from Mamet's characteristic strength: his sharp screenwriting. Heist is rife with witty repartee centered on an intelligent plot full of clever twists. Here, it proves almost too clever for its own good; the twists number a few too many and the dialogue, while brilliant, draws sharp attention to its artifice. Rarely does Mamet expose the mechanism as clearly as he does here. It doesn't help to start with one of the oldest chestnuts in the book: the aging criminal who goes after one last big score.

Thankfully, none of it matters for most of the film; the strengths usually outweigh the weaknesses. The title heist is a shipment of Swiss gold, due for a vulnerable stopover in Boston. The thief is Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), a measured pro whose crew -- the seasoned Bobby Blaine Delroy Lindo, ice-cold Pinky Pincus (Mamet regular Ricky Jay), and seamy Girl Friday Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) -- is on the verge of retirement. Moore got burned on their last job when a security camera caught his picture, and he's ready to sail off for parts unknown with Fran. Nothing doing, of course. The team's fence, Mickey Bergman (a wonderful Danny DeVito) spent a lot of money setting up the Swiss deal, and he's not prepared to take no for an answer. To complicate matters further, he insists on sending his creepy nephew (Sam Rockwell) to "keep an eye on things."

The set-up is nice and the film's two big thefts show a lot of poise and brains. Unfortunately, Mamet grows too enamored with his own techniques. As double-crosses and triple-crosses pile up, Heist starts to feel like it's competing against itself rather than telling an interesting story. A few of the twists stretch plausibility to the maximum, topped by a final turn that really feels like one too many. The characters lose some of their depth in the process, replaced by mannered speech that never shakes its unnaturalness. The results drag Heist down in places where it should be shining.

It makes up ground in other places, however. Mannered or not, Mamet's dialogue is always a joy to hear, and though we see its obvious artifice, it's hard to care. (I challenge anyone not to chortle with glee at lines like "My motherfucker is so cool, sheep count him.") Hackman and Lindo play off each other with seasoned professionalism, while DeVito revels in the chance to play a grade-A scumbag. Pidgeon's unusual acting style fits neatly into the proceedings, and the rest of the cast never misses a note. Heist climaxes with a terrific (though bloody) gunfight that hums with the realism lacking elsewhere in the proceedings. With the recent glut of John Woo-style combat in films, it's refreshing to see Heist's single act of violence as harrowing, messy, and naturally awkward. I suspect that real life gunfights closely match such chaos.

The joys of Heist are potent to be sure, and worth at least the price of a ticket. But the source demands a higher standard and the errors become unconscionable in the hands of such a master. Heist simply doesn't push the envelope like it should, and trips up too often on the detritus of its own intelligence. None of the errors are fatal, but they're certainly a bit of a letdown. Last summer's The Score did a better job of telling a similar story... and Mamet shouldn't play second fiddle to anyone.

Review published 11.12.2001.

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