Double-cross piles atop double-cross in David Mamet’s “Heist,” but sadly quantity does not insure quality. The playwright-turned-screenwriter-turned director crafted a compellingly conspiratorial tone in “Homicide” (1991) and a satisfyingly mysterious puzzle in “The Spanish Prisoner” (1998), but here his imagination fails him; a viewer going to the film expecting it to be clever and/or atmospheric will be seriously disappointed. Despite a handful of good lines, a stellar cast, and increasing improvement in Mamet’s directorial skill, this is a distressingly flat, poorly constructed piece that does narrative cartwheels in a futile effort to outwit us.
As the title indicates, the plot centers on an elaborate robbery, but in fact two such episodes are included. The first, which opens the picture, is a carefully-choreographed caper in which the gang of grizzled mastermind Joe Moore (Gene Hackman)–including his cool young wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), super-loyal black dude Bobby (Delroy Lindo) and rumpled, mousy Don (Ricky Jay)–stage a daring daylight break-in of a jewelry store. Unfortunately, in the course of the job Joe gets caught on a security camera, and when he takes the loot to fence Bergman (Danny DeVito), who financed the operation, he informs him that he has to leave the country. Bergman, however, refuses to pay Joe his share, insisting that he undertake one final assignment: the removal, from a Swiss jet liner, of a cache of gold bars. (The hoary old “one last job” cliche thus rears its ugly head.) Joe resists, but eventually agrees, even to Bergman’s unwelcome proviso that his sleazy nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) be included in the gang. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the heist, showing how the team cannily extracts the loot through an intricate sequence of events, punctuated by bursts of violence. Once the seemingly impossible mission has been successfully accomplished, though, virtually everybody involved–save for the incessantly dependable Bobby–is moved, either through greed or pressure, to scheme against one or another of the partners. (Very little honor among these thieves, it would appear.) By the close a whole series of confrontations and reversals has occurred; some of the participants wind up dead, others penniless, and one–we’ll leave you to guess whom–extravagantly wealthy.
For “Heist” to work, Mamet needed to infuse the script with two things: snappy, amusing gangland patter, and an internal logic which would give the convoluted plot a satisfying sense of inevitability. (To see how it can be done, just revisit “The Usual Suspects.”) Unfortunately, he provides neither. The script does boast an occasional good line–how could a writer as good as Mamet miss all the time?–but for the most part his effort to give pizzazz to the dialogue comes off as incredibly forced; some of the supposed bon mots are so strained that they would have been laughed off the screen in a forties film noir. (Perhaps they’re intended as parody, but if so the comic effect doesn’t come across.) Then there are the plot contrivances. The two robberies are certainly complicated enough–so much so that they hardly seem credible, dependent as they are on the most precise timing and execution (one of the double-crosses, moreover, involves switching such an enormous weight of stuff under the nose of others without anybody noticing that it not only strains but shatters credulity); but the sequence of events that follows seems entirely arbitrary, with each apparently conclusive episode followed by an out-of-left-field switch that changes the situation completely, only to be succeeded by yet another turnaround that’s equally implausible. We’re told that Joe is the kind of genius who always has a back-up plan at the ready, but here he–and almost everyone else–appear to have not one but an endless stream of alternative schemes on tap. About all the audience can do is count them, since the narrative doesn’t provide the necessary clues to infer what’s going to happen next–a requirement for a really well-crafted thriller. There’s one major exception: a brutally obvious case in which the sudden appearance of an adorable little niece presages her use as a means of getting one character to spill the beans.
Nonetheless an able cast has been assembled to give this falderal some needed heft. Hackman could probably play Joe in his sleep, but happily he gives the character more, making him a multi-layered fellow, skilled at what he does but aware of the dangers around him. Lindo expertly depicts the energetic, fast-talking Bobby, and Mamet veteran Jay brings an appropriately subdued intelligence to Don. The others are less impressive. DeVito is curiously generic as Bergman; he struts and shouts, but doesn’t provide much inner fire. Rockwell, sporting an absurd moustache, resembles a lightweight Johnny Depp; the abrupt change in his character, from bumbling ineptitude to slick assurance, certainly doesn’t help. And Pidgeon is overmatched by the role of the icy, smoldering Fran. In this case nepotism has been taken too far. As director Mamet does his best by his script; he’s grown more assured in his control of the camera, and stages the complicated theft episodes nicely.
But the picture still falls short. Given the talent in front of and behind the lens, “Heist” is a film many will go to with high expectations, and they’re going to be disappointed. If you don’t demand too much coherence and plausibility of a movie, you might find it moderately engaging; otherwise, you’ll probably emerge from the theatre thinking you’re the one who’s been robbed.