As generic as its title, “American Heist” is a pile of crime-meller cliches, with Hayden Christensen as the good brother trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow and Adrien Brody as the bad boy who drags Junior into an ill-starred bank robbery scheme. Brody, also an executive producer here, proves that you can hand some an actors an Oscar and their most cherished desire will still be to do the 982nd hammy imitation of Roberto De Niro in “Mean Streets.” This first U.S. feature for commercially successful Russian helmer Sarik Andreasyan is slick but derivative and forgettable on all levels. The stars’ iffy B.O. power won’t lend the pic much theatrical oomph, though it’ll do well enough in home formats.
Released from a 10-year prison stint, Frankie (Brody) immediately heads to a strip club with some fellow ex-cons for a night of shots, blow and broads. Then he goes to visit little bro James (Christensen), who isn’t at all glad to see him; Frankie’s myriad misdeeds (the big one being shooting a cop) got him a brief stay in the slammer, too. James has got his life more or less back on track, working at an auto-repair shop while hoping to open his own, and possibly reuniting with his g.f., Emily (Jordana Brewster), who’s just returned to town after several years.
Of course, the haplessly irresponsible Frankie immediately turns his life upside down: Within 24 hours of the his big brother’s release, James is an accessory to murder. That’s used as blackmail to force his involvement in a bank robbery dreamt up by Frankie’s not-so-nice prison buddies Ray (Tory Kittles) and Sugar (Aliaune Thiam aka hiphop/R&B star Akon, who also supervised the rap-heavy soundtrack). They need his skills, which happen to include not just car repair and carjacking, but also getaway driving and explosives rigging. The plan is to create several fiery diversions around New Orleans, distracting the police as this quartet robs a downtown bank.
Of course, that scheme goes terribly awry in the pic’s lengthy climax, which, in being watchable action, is at least an improvement on the hackneyed earlier proceedings. But even then the mayhem is just OK, the narrative surprises close to zero. The destructive-yet-loyal brother dynamic that the pic takes very seriously (as do the schmaltzy passages in Akon’s original score) is cornball through and through; ditto the by-numbers romance. It’s a bit troubling that the only black characters here are also the most ruthlessly violent ones, and Raul Inglis’ uninspired screenplay is ludicrous when handing Ray lofty speeches about how banks are the real villains in our society. It’s a point that would be worth debating if it weren’t mouthed by a one-dimensional remorseless killer.
While the climactic mayhem occasionally shows signs of budgetary limitations, “American Heist” is otherwise polished in tech and design departments. The film is shot and set in New Orleans, a city that here seems mysteriously devoid of people with regional accents — unless you count the vaguely Joisey delivery of the two stars, which choice makes no sense save as a further embrace of contemporary crime-drama cliche.