With his new film, The Heist, writer-director David Mamet attempts to recapture the success of his last crime thriller, the elegant and captivating Spanish Prisoner. But in spite of a stellar cast and some exciting set pieces, the movie drags on for too long and ultimately succeeds in stealing little more than the audience’s time.
Gene Hackman plays Joe Moore, a master conman who is always prepared for any eventuality, (“I wouldn’t clear my throat without a backup plan,” he says). But he is getting old and would like to retire and live a calm, peaceful life with his beautiful wife and accomplice, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon). This becomes an even better plan after he is forced to show his face on a security camera in order to complete a robbery without resorting to violence. But matters become complicated when his fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito), strong-arms him into taking a risky last job that involves a large amount of Swiss gold bullion. Bergman also forces Moore to let his cocky young nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), participate in the heist. In order to keep his hopes of prosperous retirement alive, Moore begins a complicated con game in which nobody can be trusted and nothing is certain.
Several plotlines look potentially compelling: Is the aging Moore still on top of his game? Will his age prevent him from holding on to the woman he loves? Is love even the most important thing? (Love does make the world go around, Moore believes. Love of gold, that is.) Yet, even with Hackman’s nuanced and convincing acting, there is never a sense of genuine emotion. All these conflicts serve as mere tools that keep the formulaic plot going and allow Mamet to serve up a barrage of his distinctive but often pointless and perfunctory quips. Though Mamet’s dialogue does provide nice pacing and a unique touch to the film, it often distracts the actors and makes for an artificial atmosphere.
Among the film’s redeeming features are several outstanding performances. Delroy Lindo plays Bobby Blane, Moore’s earnest, loyal and dependable comrade-in-arms. Though his character is limiting and static, Lindo remains charismatic and likeable. Ricky Jay’s performance is also noteworthy; the Mamet regular portrays third man Don Pincus, a consummate professional who is willing to get hit by a car to buy his accomplices time. The soft-spoken Jay is elegant and convincing in a role that, though small, becomes very crucial to the plot of the film.
In general, the film is at its best when it is portraying the dynamics of this three-person group. Their experience, their unspoken communication and their absolute trust in each other allow them to pull off spectacular cons. It is the interplay between them that gives the movie what little momentum it manages to gather.
The other three major players aren’t quite up to par. Pidgeon, though she delivers a serviceable performance, is simply too lifeless to be an integral part of the plot. Her role in the film is more decorative than anything else. Even less pronounced is Rockwell’s performance. His character is supposed to be an adequate counterweight to Hackman, a charismatic young man who makes up in energy and strength what he lacks in wisdom and experience. Rockwell, meanwhile, gets completely overshadowed by Hackman and is unable to project any kind of personality. Finally, DeVito is far too abrasive in his portrayal of Bergman. Hackman, Lindo and Jay generate a kind of dignity, a classy presence that lends the opening stages of the film some elegance. DeVito clashes with this atmosphere and ruins it. He plays a major role in the ending, when the film takes a sudden and unwelcome turn for the brutal. His strident, shrill presence does nothing to make the film more watchable. Mamet clearly intended this to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller that keeps you guessing. But he piled on about three plot twists too many, and when he does get to something of a surprise conclusion, everybody has stopped caring. It is also irritating that many of the complications that transpire in the end can only happen because Moore and his crew suddenly and completely lose the ability to predict the consequences of their actions and start acting like complete amateurs, (hmm, I just tricked a brutal gangster; let me go hang out for a while in the first place he’s going to look for me!). Finally, the movie is just too slow—it’s just not right that half the audience is bored an hour into the so-called thriller.
The Heist had a lot of potential. It has some great actors, a few interesting plot turns and some really nice cinematography. Ultimately, though, it is just too self-indulgent to succeed.