November 16, 2001

Stick 'Em Up

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To many, myself included, last summer’s The Score fell far short of its potential. Even with the amazing cast it assembled, there seemed to be no escaping its uninteresting characters and heavy reliance on a single plot twist. Seemingly written from the same treatment, The Heist comes off as a scene-by-scene correction of all The Score’s mistakes. Aside from the expected suspense, the film provides all the betrayal and deceit The Score never did, with much more cleverness.

Written and directed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Mamet, The Heist tells the story of a jewel thief, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) who is coerced by his buyer, Bergman (Danny Devito), to do his “thing” one last time. Bergman’s nephew is sent on the final job to make sure Joe stays honest in the division of the loot — in this case, Swiss gold bullion. Yes, the film is structured like dozens of other heist films that have come before, but Mamet executes the plot in such a way that it never heads into traveled territory. Even seasoned filmgoers will have trouble guessing what twists and turns will come.

The film’s success is doubtless due to Mamet’s skill as a writer. He seems to have a special knack for using all the conventions we’ve come to expect from Hollywood films, without compromising any of his personal touches. Whether in his award-winning stage plays (Glengarry Glen Ross) or his critically acclaimed films (House of Games), Mamet uses ambiguous and humorously stiff dialogue in a way that only he can.

Although the heavy use of language may come off as awkward in a film genre traditionally reliant on visuals, Mamet successfully challenges this preconceived notion. At times the dialogue can be frustratingly unclear, but more often than not, it creates extremely funny moments. It is hard to forget DeVito as he screams into the telephone, “Everybody needs money, that’s why it’s called money!” or one of the thieves, saying of Hackman, “He’s so cool, when he goes to sleep, sheep count him.” These witty exchanges between characters become themselves a source of enjoyment rather than merely filler between the “real” dramatic events.

As in House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet consistently employs the art of illusion in making you question everything you think you see. While the characters have little difficulty outmaneuvering the system, the ultimate trick is outmaneuvering one another to get more than a fair share of the loot — which, it always seems, is never large enough.

Compared to other heist films, in which suave thieves jet off to romantic locations to slip through high-tech security and steal unheard of amounts of money, this film is noticeably modest. But the familiarity of the locations and the feasibility of the plan give it an authenticity that most others lack. There is no glass-cutting, no climbing up the sides of buildings, no fancy lasers or masks — just good old fashioned guns, a few costumes, and an excellent plan.

While this may not be Mamet’s most memorable film, it certainly has a leg up on Hannibal — Mamet’s last writing day job — and several legs up on other heist films in recent memory. If nothing else, Mamet’s latest may lure unsuspecting viewers, with its unrelenting action and suspense, into seeing other, more eccentric, Mamet films.

Archived article by Patrick Douglass