King of Thieves
Hackman Shines As Mamet Flirts With the Mainstream in 'Heist'
By Patrick Reed

Ricky Jay, Gene Hackman and Delroy Lindo plot and plan in 'Heist'

One clear signal of impending cold weather is the gradual emergence of more serious, "adult" fare at the local cineplex. Yes, the prestige season for American cinema is upon us, a time when the major studios roll out films for awards consideration, aiming first for a hearty winter-time run at the box office, followed by the critics' awards, and of course, on to the Oscars. David Mamet has long contributed scripts (original and adapted, alone and with others) for some of Hollywood's big-budget genre releases - from courtroom drama The Verdict (1982) and gangster film The Untouchables (1987), to the more recent survivalist study The Edge (1997) and psychological gore-fest Hannibal (last spring) - but his parallel career as a writer-director exists on a relatively modest scale, financially speaking, giving him more creative control as a result. This has allowed Mamet to apply his talents for creating complex, often devious characters and witty wordplay in more intimate settings that have dealt with topics serious (1991's Homicide) as well as farcical (last year's State and Main).

With a decent marketing build-up, the distribution muscle of Warner Brothers, and featuring the ever-excellent Gene Hackman in the central role, Heist is a departure from Mamet's previous track record as a "w/d" - it includes enough of the Chicago native's trademark double-crossing and acerbic insults to satisfy the loyalists, but, more so than any of his previous efforts, aspires to reach a broader audience (the simplicity of the title alone is a giveaway). The result: an accessible, well-crafted genre film that occasionally comes up a bit short in areas Mamet usually excels in: dialogue and acting.

Heist begins as Joe Moore (Hackman) and his crew execute a high-stakes bank burglary at the start of a business day, and true to Mamet form, the plan does not go like clockwork: one employee sees Joe without his mask, and his visage is also caught on the security videotape. To make matters worse, Joe's scurrilous fence Bergman (Danny DeVito) dismisses any talk of retirement; there's a huge shipment of Swiss gold due for a layover in a small Massachusetts airport, and Joe is ordered to mastermind this additional heist if he wants to receive his crew's payment for the bank job they just completed. Joe's longtime partners Bobby (Delroy Lindo, The Cider House Rules [1999]) and Pinky (Ricky Jay, a Mamet regular as well as a famous sleight-of-hand expert) are skeptical about this arrangement, to say the least, as is his pretty and somewhat shady wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life spouse and another frequent contributor in his films). Joe and Fran had planned to sail down to the Caribbean in his prized schooner for a life of leisure and anonymity, but instead Joe chooses, "for the love of gold," he says, to placate Bergman and do the job, even taking on the fence's pompous nephew Jimmy (Sam Rockwell) as an apprentice.

After establishing Joe's objective, Heist moves on to a series of near-betrayals and double-crosses - all told, perhaps one or two too many. The film works best when it observes Joe and his crew of professionals at work; the camerawork by Robert Elswit, normally Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematographer, follows along calmly, almost unobtrusively, as the airport heist is devised and carried off. There are plenty of prime Mamet put-downs and anecdotes as well, and both Delroy Lindo and Ricky Jay earn laughs with some of the best. Conversely, some of the other performances are almost overwhelmed by the dialogue - Rebecca Pidgeon doesn't emit near enough femme fatale intrigue as Fran, and sullen Sam Rockwell, long a bit player in independent films and more recently in that tour de force of acting chops Charlie's Angels (2000), hardly registers as Jimmy. Danny DeVito is, as nearly always it seems, a one-note performer; imagine Louie De Palma from Taxi completely enamored with the f-word, and you've got Bergman.

In Mamet-land, everyone speaks out of both sides of their mouth, and Heist is certainly no different - at times it seems that Mamet is mining the same well of moral deception he deftly delineated in 1987's House Of Games, his debut as a writer-director. Still, compared to most of what passes for mature mainstream moviemaking these days - and even held up against last summer's very similar film The Score - Heist is solid entertainment. Finally, there's Gene Hackman. Suffice it to say that, since Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, the man has elevated many a mediocre film and anchored several great ones. Heist falls somewhere in between, but Hackman's Joe Moore is one of his more thoroughly-inhabited characterizations of recent vintage - similar in behavior to his CIA fugitive in Enemy of the State (1998), but far more complex, and in truth nearer to his classic, world-weary performances in Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975).