**/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Rebecca Pidgeon
written and directed by David Mamet
by Walter Chaw David Mamet the writer repeats himself in tight blobs of verbal noise, awkward turns of phrase, and staccato blasts. Mamet directs movies, I suspect, to preserve every beat of his favourite screenwriter's (Mamet) careful, layered scripts. How he continues to lure big-name actors and producers to play in his exclusive little quicksand boxes of narrative dysfunction is a mystery. For as distinct as the celebrated playwright's dialogue is, almost more so is the lamentable instinct to cast his largely-talentless wives in pivotal roles (first Lindsay Crouse, now the consistently abominable Rebecca Pidgeon), not neglecting Mamet's inability to transcend the mannered and under-populated staginess of the theatre in which he belongs.
His best scripts--The Verdict, Vanya on 42nd Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables--were all for directors who understood that Mamet's peculiar vocal cadences and stylized narratives are best treated as slightly allegorical, anachronistic, and absurdist parables. Mamet the director, however, seems to believe that his writing self produces work of gritty realism and stark vérité, fostering an unintentionally hilarious misstep like House of Games or such remote masturbatory schlock as State and Main and The Spanish Prisoner. Mamet's latest work as a hyphenate, Heist, is guilty of his directorial sins while also featuring one of the scribe's least involving plots. It's a beaten-down clunker of a caper flick so infatuated with multiple repetitions of the same non-shocking twist at its finale that it inspires more moans of exhaustion than gasps of recognition.
Carrying on the disturbing trend of Hollywood legends appearing in jazz-scored, straight-jacketed formula crime thrillers as aging sharpies (begun earlier this year by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in the just-as-boring The Score), Gene Hackman plays Joe Moore, a veteran thief who, against his better judgment, commits...yadda yadda yadda...to one last score. Mamet tosses a few diaphanous complications into the tepid stew to portray Joe's decision as something less than a genre convention--the desperation of which ironically points to just how stock they are. Joe is the head of a little gang of highly drilled felons including Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay), and wife Fran (Pidgeon). After their fence Bergman (Danny DeVito) cheats them on a jewellery gig split, they agree to do that one more "thing" for all the marbles with Bergman's oily nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) inexplicably along for the ride. I say "inexplicably" when I mean only to imply that Jimmy Silk's participation isn't justified by the events at hand, but it's apparent that films like this need to have a loose cannon to create tension during the climactic caper sequence, and to provide for a younger generation of actor to receive the passed baton.
Mamet stages two elaborate heist sequences between hoping that "lame" as a noun catches on in the criminal underworld (e.g., "I'm not working with that lame!") and praying that Pidgeon somehow carries off "smouldering femme fatale" when "doll-eyed mannequin" is more appropriate to her range. The opening, speechless robbery gives quickly deflated hope that Heist will be kinetic and interesting. By the time the second rolls around, a runway hijacking of a Swiss airplane, watches have been checked and exit signs romanced. If not for the work of the ever-brilliant Hackman, the always-watchable Lindo, Rockwell, and Jay, and the underrated DeVito's turn as the no-account fence, Heist would be merely (instead of incidentally) a self-indulgent exercise in senseless word-love and misguided nepotism.
Above all the distractions provided by a pivotal role shockingly misplayed (and the tortured dialogue that is mellifluous to the fan but murderous to coherence), Heist is at heart a crime melodrama that uses incalculable variables ("How unconscious will I be rendered when I am rendered unconscious and not dead?" or, "This uncontrollable cipher will be in the wrong lane of the road at a precise moment") as the cornerstones of its various intrigues. Not surprisingly, several key moments (a major conflict involving a surveillance camera, another concerning a prospective boat buyer, and so on) are swiftly left in the wake of mounting improbabilities--in the hope, I guess, that you'll forget about them as completely as the characters do.
by Bill Chambers Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Heist looks soft and muted on DVD and there are no instances of deep black, but that's because Robert Elswit shot Heist with a subdued, low-contrast palette as befitting Mamet's utilitarian visual sense; through no fault of the telecine operators or compressionists does the image disappoint. An accompanying 5.1 Dolby Digital mix (in English and dubbed-in-Quebec French options) gets in some nice surround effects during the climactic shoot-out, and there's more than a hint of bass in an early explosion. Dialogue is nice and precise, never a struggle to make out. Although it was rumoured at one time that Mamet would record a commentary for Heist, the disc's only extras are filmographies for the principals and the theatrical trailer. Originally published: March 6, 2002.