It’s been 30 years since Henry Rollins fronted the hell-raising Los Angeles hardcore punk band Black Flag, but you could say that he’s been dining out on the role ever since. And, in fact, it was a role. Punk, especially in L.A., was most definitely a form of theater — the showbiz of anti-showbiz, the drama of rock & roll that flirted with hate culture. Rollins, sporting a muscle-beach bod and exotic (at the time) circus array of tattoos, with an unsmiling glower of straight-edge ‘tude, became the spokesman for a new kind of moralistic bruiser cool. He was then able to pour that persona into his on-and-off career as an actor. His opportunities there have often been on the small screen, notably his role as a white-supremacist dad on “Sons of Anarchy” (though he has also appeared in such films as “Heat” and “Lost Highway”). Most of those opportunities have played off his image as a grimly direct truth-teller, a rationalist with a short fuse. (He channels his anger into being more-logical-than-thou.) But in the scrappy hostage drama “The Last Heist,” Rollins, straying out of his comfort zone, seizes on the chance to create a discomfort zone. He plays a serial killer who’s got a whole “philosophy” of violence, and Rollins makes him a real stand-alone, vivid creep. He’s also the only reason to see the movie.
Early on, we see him strolling down one of those anonymous industrial L.A. side boulevards, a blockish middle-aged man with grayish-white hair and a trench coat, looking for all the world like a 21st-century Willy Loman. The building he’s heading towards is a lowly bank branch that contains nothing but safety-deposit boxes — and, in fact, the branch is about to go out of business, and it’s in the middle of closing down. He just needs to unlock his stuff and go. But as fate, or sloppy utilitarian screenwriting, would have it, just minutes after he walks in the place is hit by half a dozen crooks in coordinated suits and Halloween masks. What do they want from a mostly barren safety-deposit vault? As fate (or slipshod…etc.) would have it, one of those boxes contains $100 million in drug cartel money, translated into unmarked bearer bonds. Gathering up those bonds should be a piece of cake, if only it weren’t for Rollins’ infamous Windows Killer, so named because he takes his victims’ eyeballs as trophies. He’s wandering around in the basement, ready to pounce.
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“The Last Heist” is the kind of grimy threadbare indie thriller in which ambition turns out to be inseparable from a certain low-budget arrogance. It’s fine to aim high and be influenced by great movies of the past, but at a certain point it becomes clear that the director, Mike Mendez, and screenwriter, Guy Stevenson, think they’re making “Reservoir Dogs” crossed with “Dog Day Afternoon.” (You want to say: Sorry, dudes, we saw those movies too.) The dialogue is minimal, and the stock coincidences and contrivances just pile up, the most glaring one being that when Paul (Torrance Coombs), the robber whose brother works at the bank, discovers that the brother is right on the premises (he was supposed to have the day off), he reacts by removing his mask. Why? So that characters like Ally (Camilla Jackson), the bee-otch sociopath in a Patty Hearst beret, will have something to yell about. The movie turns into a weary war between the robbers, the LAPD, and a corrupt federal agent (John J. York) who swoops in to save the day (but not really).
Undermining them all is the sicko in the shadows: Rollins’ Bernard, who the audience develops a certain bond with, even as he’s slashing open people’s arteries. Maybe that’s because of how Rollins stays so quietly eager and polite. Hidden behind the kind of 1950s high-school science-teacher glasses that David Byrne wore ironically in 1992, he’s a murderer with a vision; he thinks he’s somehow saving souls. “Your heart is pumping the blood out of your body,” he explains with methodical calm to one victim, adding the reassuring thought, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.” Rollins delivers that line with a barely suppressed grin that says: Yes, he really is! Now it’s time for him to find a role in a good movie.