Heist

It might take a team of screenwriters working at the height of their abilities to come up with the double- and triple-crosses in Heist, but by now, writer-director David Mamet can do this sort of thing in his sleep. From his debut feature (1987's House Of Games) on, Mamet the con artist has delighted in using film as a tool in his sleight-of-hand tricks, first conning the marks on the screen, then working over the audience in kind. His other pure genre exercise, 1997's The Spanish Prisoner, was a superb expansion on the formula that wound the straight man through a thicket of traps laid out by people more clever and devious than himself. Heist doesn't work quite as well as either of them, possibly because Mamet has populated the film with con men working in concert, so there's no force of resistance other than the crime itself. But Mamet is still Mamet, which means the dialogue sings with shrewd one-liners and the elaborate kinks of the plot have been worked out with his usual precision, at least until a disappointing resolution that suggests he finally wrote himself into a corner. Gene Hackman stars as the oldest of crime-movie clichés, the master thief duped into returning for one last big score before retirement. A man called "so cool that when sheep go to bed, they count him," Hackman, along with his wife Rebecca Pidgeon and his associates Ricky Jay and Delroy Lindo, agrees to carry out an impossibly difficult (but lucrative) robbery set up by longtime front man Danny DeVito. The one condition to "the Swiss job" is that they bring along one of DeVito's henchmen, a brash and seemingly dimwitted young punk played by Sam Rockwell. Only a few twists removed from The Score, right down to its purposefully generic title, Heist is superior in every facet except the genre's most crucial one. Following the Rififi model, both films lead to one major setpiece, but The Score maps out the plan beforehand, down to even the most mundane detail, whereas the massive airport swindle in Heist is only half-drawn for the audience until it happens, which slightly diminishes the suspense. Mamet knows his way around the crime game better than anyone, and few are as brilliant with stylized dialogue, but as the double-crosses pile up in neat stacks, it's hard not to wish he had set a bigger challenge for himself. At this point, asking Mamet to plot a passable heist movie is like asking one of his characters to knock off a convenience store.

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