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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Not Robbery or Theft, but Heist.

That ought to tell you exactly what kind of movie this is. Smart crooks, intricate plans, and a big reward for anyone who can pull it off, as David Mamet and Gene Hackman do.

Charismatic Criminals

Gene Hackman steals the director's wifeHackman plays Joe, a career criminal surrounded by a team of fiercely loyal accomplices. Delroy Lindo plays Bobby, Hackman’s right-hand man. Longtime Mamet collaborator Ricky Jay plays Pinky, the diversionary genius and fall guy with velcro lips. Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon plays Hackman’s wife Fran, the member of the gang who handles the things only a woman can handle.

These charismatic criminals opens the movie with a tight, exciting, well-executed robbery that itself could be the climax in a lesser movie. Their timing is perfect and their execution is flawless. Even so, something unpredictable happens, as Joe knows is inevitable. They get away with the swag, but one of them may have given away his identity.

The Swiss Thing

Nevertheless, they have the goods and they take it to their fence and kingpin Bergman (played by Danny De Vito in a scene-stealing small role). Bergman is glad for the success, but he isn’t completely happy. What he’s really interested in is “the Swiss thing” that he worked out with Joe’s gang.

“The Swiss thing” isn’t quite to Joe’s liking because one of his team’s identity may be compromised. He also doesn’t like Bergman’s insistence that he take one of Bergman’s own men, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), along for the score. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t have a movie if Joe didn’t accept, so he does.

Without giving too much away, the Swiss thing turns out to be a beautifully planned heist with all sorts of interesting plan-Bs. Think The Sting or Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner and you’ll understand my reluctance to reveal too many details.

Hackman Fits Mamet

What I can tell you is what’s good and bad about Heist. As I said earlier, Mamet and Hackman deserve a big reward for pulling off this film. Mamet’s insider dialogue sounds authentic and adds a texture of plausibility to the film. His inspired plot line and tight, seamless direction would have made Heist worth seeing no matter who starred.

Gene Hackman contributes by fitting into Mamet’s world like a hand into a glove. His delivery of Mamet’s dialogue is natural and convincing. His wise, seasoned character is believably smart and charismatic. He seems to know exactly what Mamet wants and he knows exactly how to handle it. Either his role was written for him or Hackman was just born to play the part.

Part of what makes Hackman’s character so good, however, is the way the movie is structured around him. Because he is surrounded by loyal colleagues, and because these colleagues look up to him has a leader, even I could have played the part and come out looking good. Add a headstrong, overambitious, careless kid (Sam Rockwell’s character), and by contrast Joe looks even better.

But whether the credit goes to Hackman, to Mamet, or to the supporting characters doesn’t really matter, because the film is a pleasure to watch (at least to those of us drawn to caper movies).

Timing and Violence

There are a few places where the film falters. Unfortunately, one involves the takeover of a cargo jet. In the wake of September 11, my audience seemed particularly muted and distracted by the ease with which a small group of men were able to take over the plane. It’s hard to blame the film for its timing, but nevertheless, it suffers .

Also, those unused to Rebecca Pidgeon’s acting style may find her a distraction. She’s an old-school actor, acting alongside a bunch of method actors, and devotees of performances may take notice at the stylistic clash.

There is also too much violence, too much gunplay for a movie called Heist. Heists and capers usually mean smart, smooth crooks stealing diamonds under cover of night. Very rarely is there a gunshot in such a movie. Look at Topkapi or The Italian Job, or even Entrapment from a few years ago, and you won’t see much of a body count, unlike Heist.

If there were a sane MPAA, or as Roger Ebert advocates, an “A” rating (meaning adults only) without any puritanically prudish sexual stigma, Heist would be a good candidate, not just for the violence, but for the language and the seriousness with which it is delivered.

Steal a Look

Still, Heist is a very good movie, a satisfying caper written and directed by a masterful craftsman and starring a perfect cast of leads and supporters.

If violence, language, or crime doesn’t turn you away, give Heist a look.