As a fable of professional thieves and their rivalries, “Heist” suffers from acute staleness. The timing also is less than astute: It seems a poor man’s variation on Frank Oz’s suspenseful, playful and vastly superior “The Score.”
Curiously, both movies were shot in Montreal, although only “The Score” acknowledges the city as its principal location. Maybe this is a clue to wrongheaded tendencies within the “Heist” apparatus, which was commanded by writer-director David Mamet, evidently during a prolonged state of inertia, and claims Boston as its stomping grounds.
Gene Hackman, a seasoned thieving guy named Joe Moore, participates in the early-morning robbery of a jewelry exchange with accomplices Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo), Don Pincus (Ricky Jay) and Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mrs. Moore within the plot and Mrs. Mamet off camera). A hitch in the setup prevents the thieves from carrying off one treasure, later revealed to be a heap of gold bars. Another hitch causes Joe to be “burned” glimpsed full-face by surveillance cameras.
Moviegoers face another sort of burning: the realization that an evening with “Heist” will be tantamount to igniting a 10-spot or more, depending on the size of their party. Getting the movie from page to screen ranks as some kind of tribute to the persuasive power of big reputations, because following Joe and Co. from one booby-trapped caper to the next proves more arduous than intriguing.
There’s also a double-crossing fence in the “Heist” setup. Called Bergman and played by Danny DeVito, not nearly as much fun to contemplate as the gargantuan Marlon Brando of “The Score,” this schemer clearly has it in for Joe, who wants to retire. The bossy runt insists on a follow-up theft using his own inside man, Sam Rockwell as a sleaze named Jimmy Silk, purportedly a nephew and eventually a sexual entanglement for the faithless Fran.
Mr. Mamet’s idiom seems to need a booster shot or something. The would-be sarcastic and hostile formulations are cranky but toothless. Chinese allusions seem to be gumming up his metaphors. For example, the snarling retort “How long is a Chinaman’s name?” evidently is Mamet underworld argot for “Don’t ask a stupid question.”
Mr. Hackman and Miss Pidgeon have a passing, strange exchange when Joe orders her, foolishly as it transpires, to seduce the outsider Jimmy. “I need you to suit up,” says he. “If I’m the go-getter,” replies she, “tell me what I’m supposed to go and get.” This prompts a compliment of sorts: “Ain’t you the piece of work?” Then that Chinaman intrudes again as salty Fran quips, “Yeah, I came all the way from China in a matchbox.”
Do tell. Perhaps it’s a good thing the characters overrate themselves, because it’s difficult to take their criminal prowess seriously from sequence to sequence.
Indeed, the biggest slip-up on “Heist” may have been the absence of adequate inside dope about the culture of armed robbers and safecrackers. The follow-up theft is one of the most heavy-footed operations ever filmed. It slogs from scarcely credible preliminaries, with Mr. Hackman and the gang infiltrating a small airport, to pictorially clumsy maneuvering around a runway to permit transfer of bullion-heavy containers from a jet into the crooks’ getaway van.
Evidently, the sequence of events defied streamlining in the editing room. I’m surprised “America’s Most Wanted” didn’t have time to catch up with the crime and collar the perps while they were still on the runway.
It’s not all that surprising that David Mamet, or anyone else, might run dry while cooking up a formulaic caper melodrama. There even may be a forgiving audience of Mamet admirers and scholars destined to marvel at “Heist” as a “deconstruction” of genre cliches and traditions. There’s nothing like a feeble re-enactment of stale material to justify the notion that intentional deflation was the whole idea. Unfortunately, even if he was faking it deliberately, Mr. Mamet ends up faking it lamely.