David Mamet”s “Heist” is a story of a high profile caper and complicated confidence scams that rises to the top of an otherwise tired genre. It propels the classic “one last job” scenario beyond the usual cookie cutter story, and it does it with a unique style that will soon be (if it”s not already) associated with Mamet.
The basic plot at the opening of “Heist” isn”t terribly complicated, and it is actually misleading in its simplicity. Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is an expert thief and con-artist, and along with his crew, Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo), Pinky Pincus (Ricky Jay) and Joe”s wife, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), he successfully robs a jewelry store there”s only one problem: He is caught on tape without a mask. He decides that his best hope for survival is to take his earnings and sail away with his wife. Unfortunately, Joe”s partner and financier Bergman, played by Danny Devito, tells Joe that he won”t get his cut of the jewels until he does one last heist: A shipment of Swiss gold. To make things worse, Bergman insists that Joe take Bergman”s loose-cannon nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), along on the job.
The plot is a maze of double crosses and near disasters, with only a few characters in control at any one time. The way that the plot moves is characteristic of Mamet in that, at times, it seems that the writer doesn”t really care whether the audience understands everything that is happening it”s sink or swim, and the audience had better start dog-paddling with all its might. This is not to say that the movie is confusing, only that we are drawn into the movie quickly and not allowed to stop to catch our breath at any point, since we are too busy trying to stay at the same level as the characters.
The characters are the real gold in the film. Hackman gives his usual excellent performance as a quick and resourceful thief who always has a back-up plan to his back-up plan, and as Pinky says, Joe “is so cool, when he goes to sleep sheep count him.” Lindo fits his part perfectly, showing panic and fear in just the right amounts, and Pidgeon makes a successful departure from some of her previous characters with her role as the slinky and unpredictable Fran.
Devito steals the show as Bergman, with funny dialogue and a strong but panicky presence. In a shouting match with Joe over the final job, he waves his arms and exclaims “Everybody need money! That”s why they call it money!”
A hidden talent who is making his way into the light is Sam Rockwell, who has proved his range as an actor, from an absolutely hilarious role as Guy in “Galaxy Quest” to the psychotic Wild Bill in “The Green Mile.” His portrayal of Jimmy Silk is convincing, and Rockwell is able to make Jimmy surprisingly menacing, considering how weak his character is compared to Joe and Bobby.
Some of Mamet”s real gifts are the abilities to write scenes that you feel like you”ve never seen before and give you dialogue that you can”t predict. Although the film is not on the level of “The Spanish Prisoner,” Mamet does an excellent job of giving the film its own atmosphere, one that doesn”t feel borrowed.
In a gunfight at a harbor (a familiar enough setting), we see Bergman flailing around, avoiding bullets and yelling “Let”s talk this over” like a kid who has thrown one too many insults on the playground. We expect the stylized gunfight with overused slow motion and dramatic music, but what we get is probably what a real gunfight looks like.
“Heist” being Mamet”s first suspense/action film since “The Spanish Prisoner,” comparison of the two is unavoidable. One of the things that made “The Spanish Prisoner” so enjoyable and so enthralling was that the main character was just a normal guy, a version of Hitchcock”s “everyman,” the regular guy caught up an the absurd and dangerous situation. The characters in “Heist” have no such innocence, and their power and direction are part of their charm, but at some point we long for someone we can identify with for reasons other than the fact that we know he is going to win.