A decently entertaining Mob movie about a famous burglary, A&E’s “The Big Heist” covers much of the same ground as Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” but from a wholly different perspective and with a wholly different tone. Cable pic doesn’t benefit from much comparison with that memorable feature, but it does deliver a lightweight, well-paced, compelling story with a modicum of style and an appealing performance by Donald Sutherland.
Sutherland plays small-time mobster Jimmy Burke, and the film begins with his release from prison in the mid-’70s. A well-mannered Irishman schooled in old-style mob loyalty, Burke is devoted to his gang of dimwitted followers, including the now-famous turncoat Henry Hill (Nick Sandow). When Burke discovers his son Frankie (Jamie Harris) hasn’t paid back his debt to the Gambino family, he leads his motley crew in what remains the largest cash robbery in history, the 1978 Lufthansa heist, which netted $8 million.
Teleplay by Jere Cunningham and Gary Hoffman, who also exec produced, puts the emphasis on Jimmy’s relationship with his son, who craves his father’s approval and can find it only in becoming a crook, and with cop Richard Woods (John Heard), a composite figure who is given a complex history with Burke and doggedly seeks to solve the crime and send his nemesis back to prison. As he gets closer to the truth, the Gambinos begin to demand that Burke kill his own crew members.
Despite inclusion of mob figures John Gotti and Paul Castellano, and even as the pic gets violent, this story remains pretty lighthearted. Director Robert Markowitz and cinematographer Rudolf Blahacek use some freeze-frame imagery and stylish transitions, adding to the sprightly genre sensibility.
Sutherland manages to make the lead character likable, catching the right semi-comic tone without sacrificing basic believability. The work certainly could be criticized for taking death a bit lightly, given that this is a true tale. It’s not especially memorable, and the story’s been told better, but this is a solid telepic nonetheless.