Now Showing: Heist

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Director David Mamet is a master of the con game. He can spin webs of deceit and grift so complex that they make Steven Spielberg's dinosaurs look like wind up toys. Glengarry Glenross, House of Games, and The Spanish Prisoner; each is an intense, character driven shell game, and you never know where the little red ball will turn up next. After a short comedy break with State and Main (which is very funny, by the way; go rent it), Mamet is back to what he does best with Heist.

Gene Hackman is a thief. Jewel thief, gold thief; whatever you want, he can get it. He's got a crackerjack team that can set up a job and get the goods in record time. But he's getting old and the game is losing its allure. With dreams of retiring to South America with his boat and a sack full of money, he finishes his last job: a jewelry store. But something goes wrong, a security camera catches his face; he's burned, as they say. And to make matters worse, his fence, Danny Devito, refuses to pay unless he does one more job, enigmatically referred to as "the Swiss thing." Another condition of the deal is that Devito's slimy, up and coming nephew (played by slimy, up and coming actor Sam Rockwell) be included on the job. However, Hackman isn't so old that he's going to let himself be played for a fool twice; he's got other plans in mind. Let the cons begin.

If that sounds complicated, then you get a pretty fair idea of what it's like watching a David Mamet movie. In fact, the film is even more complicated than it sounds. Every situation is a possible con. You never know who's on whose side, or who's screwing over who, but that's part of the fun; if you can keep up, that is. There's an almost inevitable flaw in movies like Heist. It happens when the writer or director (same person, in this case) gets so caught up in the story that no one could possibly keep pace; when they start to fashion cons so fiendishly elaborate that they leave audience scratching their heads with no hope of figuring it out. Luckily, Heist only dips its toes into that pool.

Where Mamet occasionally loses points for coherence, he gains points for talent. Hollywood loves David Mamet. The bank of stars who have agreed to work at minimal wages just to be in his films is as varied as a Saturday Night Live guest list, but they all have one thing in common: talent. Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy, Steve Martin, Joe Mantegna, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, the list goes on and on. In this film, besides Gene Hackman and Danny Devito, who're always good, there's Delroy Lindo, who is superb as Hackman's second in command. Sam Rockwell handles his role with a jittery ease. He's the guy who you know is always going to mess something up. The last member of the gang is Ricky Jay, a Mamet regular. He's one of those guys that you remember the face, but not the name. He's excellent. He handles Mamet's signature style of writing like a pro. He delivers short, snappy lines of dialogue in a sleepy kind of California drawl. All his lines have a blurred edge of inevitability about them and it's hard to tell whether he's being sarcastic or serious. That was about as complicated as one of Mamet's scripts. Suffice it to say, he's really good.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rebecca Pidgeon, another Mamet regular, who plays Hackman's young, grifter wife. I don't know if she's a relative of Mamet's or something, but he keeps putting her in these movies, and I can't see that she's all that good an actress. Every line of dialogue is delivered in the same way: flat, straightforward, and expressionless. I keep thinking she's going to bust out, show some emotion, but she never does. Maybe it's me. Maybe she's an incredibly subtle actress , pouring forth gallons of nuance with every blank stare and monotone utterance. Maybe the duller she is on the outside, the more her inner character is screaming with joy or anger or pathos or whatever emotion she's trying to portray. Maybe not.

In the pantheon of con films, the best I've ever seen is probably The Usual Suspects. While Heist doesn't match up to that, it is a pretty good movie. It is much better than it's closest relative, The Score, which pitted Robert DeNiro against Edward Norton, while Marlon Brando rolled around the edges hiding under his Panama Hat. And, while its cons are not as good as those in Mamet's Spanish Prisoner, it does have a much more satisfying ending. If you don't like a movie that leads you by the nose, and you don't mind taking some leaps of faith that the director has worked all this out, and it makes a crazy kind of sense somewhere, then go to see Heist; I promise you won't feel robbed. Grade: B+

Heist is rated R for language and violence.

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