David Mamet again exercises his fascination for intricately constructed, noirish thrillers with “Heist,” a playful ensemble piece about a crack robbery team going for a major gold haul. But while staccato dialogue and edgy confrontations have always been the wordsmith’s forte, the precision-tooled mechanics of an elaborate crime caper have not, and the physical direction here could use some muscle. Clever and diverting as it is, this is minor Mamet and looks unlikely to benefit from the critical attention and consequent commercial boost of the writer-director’s recent arthouse entries “The Spanish Prisoner” and “State and Main.” U.S. release via Warner is set for Oct. 26.
Opening uncharacteristically on action rather than talk, the story gets under way as veteran thief Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) and his team, which includes trusted partner Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) and utility guy Pinky Pincus (Ricky Jay), hit a jewelry store. While the job is a success, Joe is seen without a mask by a clerk, placing him at risk of identification. Taking this as his cue to retire, Joe plans to sail away on his yacht with his cool and crafty wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon).
But his plans get postponed when he stops to collect the team’s cut of the jewelry job from Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito), the crooked businessman who fences their stolen goods and bankrolls the robberies. Refusing to pay up, Mickey strong-arms Joe into going through with the robbery of a shipment of Swiss gold coming in on a cargo flight. To ensure Joe doesn’t abscond with the loot, Mickey insists his cocky nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) go along to protect his interests.
The complex planning and preparation for the airport hit requires the team to outwit cops, airport security, the FBI and U.S. customs while Joe worries about being recognized. At the same time they are on constant guard with each other, second-guessing the limits of loyalty and honor among thieves.
Silk’s attitude, inexperience and lack of composure around cops make him an inconvenient addition and his attraction to Fran adds further friction. When Joe uses that attraction for his own benefit by sending Fran to liaise and reassure Silk and his uncle that the job will go ahead as planned, he unwittingly plants the seeds of marital distrust.
As one would expect from a Mamet screenplay, the plotting of all this is polished and ingenious as each plan is peeled away to reveal a devious counter-plan underneath. But while the construction is taut, the Chinese-box aspect is over-extended, making the unpredictability factor in itself predictable. The double-crosses, switched allegiances and surprise twists arrive so punctually that the audience is too clued into the mechanism not to expect each reversal to segue to another.
While Mamet’s direction is efficient enough, it’s in the less dialogue-driven scenes that the film descends into commonplace genre territory. The gold heist itself and some late-reel gunplay could have benefited enormously from more stylish handling, and audiences accustomed to today’s high-tech thrillers may find this all a little tame and old school. Robert Elswit’s very straightforward lensing of generic Canadian locations (standing in for New York and New England) adds little, as does Theodore Shapiro’s standard-issue suspense score.
What’s perhaps most disappointing given the cast and the sharp-edged ensembles in some of Mamet’s previous outings is the character lineup. Hackman brings the material considerable authority with a subdued, wily turn, conveying Joe’s level-headedness and sharp wits but also the nagging self-awareness that he’s slowing down with age. Also well-honed is the easy camaraderie and communicative shorthand between his and Lindo’s more volatile but equally savvy character.
But DeVito and Rockwell, both of whom have brought a sleazy sense of mischief to some memorable scoundrels, fail to add much color to bland roles, likewise Mamet regular Jay. As has often been the case in her husband’s casts, the weakest link is Pidgeon, who simply lacks the smolder factor, the hard sensuality and sleepy-eyed, dangerous quality to make her convincing as a classic film noir bad girl, her flat line-readings failing to give much bite to tough-talking Fran.