The Big Picture: Heist (15)

Old pro delivers the goods
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The Independent Culture

Ever since his slippery debut, House of Games (1987), David Mamet seems to have made it a personal principle to keep his audience guessing. This applies to his choice of genre as much as to the labyrinthine plotting and counter-plotting that animates his best movies. Consider his last three projects: a Hitchcockian thriller (The Spanish Prisoner), an Edwardian period piece (The Winslow Boy) and a Hollywood-on-location comedy (State and Main). Whether out of restlessness or a competitive instinct, or both, this writer-director appears to be collecting genres the way some men collect cars – can the Mamet space opera or the submarine flick be far away?

For now he has contented himself with the sort of picture I thought we'd had our fill of. There may have been a time when to use the words "heist movie", "criminal mastermind" and "one last job" did not provoke a weary disgust, but that time surely passed long ago. Even the combined talents of Brando, De Niro and Edward Norton couldn't burn the mildew off the tired old shtick of The Score earlier this year. Yet Heist, while playing no new variations on the form, finds potency in the old, thanks to the superior chops of its cast and a script so sharp it could jemmy a safe. Mamet has assembled a team of players who bring to the job the kind of stealth and know-how that become vital to pulling off the high-numbers robbery at the centre of the film and the cat's-cradle of double-crosses that surround it.

Mamet's work has previously suffered from the inability of actors, even good actors, to make his highly stylised dialogue swing. That's not a problem here. Gene Hackman is on blistering form as Joe Moore, a shrewd, steely, compact fellow who runs a tight gang of thieves in Boston. As an actor, Hackman seems to do barely a thing, but he packs his performance with unobtrusive details, like the mirthless little chuckle he uses to buy himself time, or the beat he leaves between sentences as he weighs up the odds, or the impression he creates of always thinking at least two steps ahead of everybody else. As one of his admirers puts it, he is "so cool, when he goes to bed the sheep count him." Joe has a more straightforward take on his secret: "I try to imagine someone smarter than I am, then do what he would do."

It seems to work, or does until a security camera catches his mug during a bank raid. He is, in a word, "burnt" – shorthand (I think) for "caught on surveillance video and consequently a liability". A man wise to this is his fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito), who pulls a fast one on Joe and his crew by withholding their cash until they do another job, known simply as "the Swiss thing". DeVito here is a miniature Rottweiler, straining at an invisible leash and snarling out his lines. When Joe tells him he doesn't need any more money, DeVito wheels away in disgust: "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money". You can't, and he won't, say fairer than that. As well as being blackmailed, Joe and his team – Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Pink (Ricky Jay) and Joe's young wife, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) – are forced to take along Bergman's nephew, Jimmy (Sam Rockwell), an abrasive, trigger-happy punk who fancies himself a stud. In fact, the gang knows he's "lame" (ie, useless – the joy of this criminal argot lies partly in its almost Latinate compression) and sets about hoodwinking him from the get-go, a plan complicated by Jimmy's hitting on Fran.

The movie becomes a story about a con, the one being pulled on Jimmy and the one being pulled on the audience. These cons appear to be one and the same, but given the false fronts and trap doors in this house of games, one can never be sure. Mamet, a keen poker player, loves to bluff, and he sometimes stretches a scene just to check how long it takes to snap. When one of the gang apologises to Joe for losing a clipboard that had the details of the job ("the Swiss thing") written all over it, a huge argument erupts and another gang member storms out. The job is cancelled, but the camera lingers upon the aftermath of the bust-up and you think: uh-oh. When the heist eventually goes ahead – it turns out to be a cargo plane carrying Swiss bullion – Mamet follows the build-up (smuggling a gun through security, disarming the guard, the decoy) and the looting of the plane with something very like admiration: it's the pleasure of watching professionals at work.

These brisk, economical scenes crank up the suspense so expertly that you naturally end up wanting the thieves to get away with it. Whether they do, and what fall-out ensues, I'll leave for you to discover. The chink in Mamet's armour (actually, a pretty large hole) remains his sketchy portrayal of women, who tend to be either whores or cheats. I'm not sure whether it's the thinness of this particular role or Pidgeon's somewhat stiff acting, but her sassy, wise-cracking broad is the weak link in an otherwise nifty ensemble.

It's inadvisable to call it Gene Hackman's finest work, because with this actor one always feels there is another monumental performance just around the bend. But Heist is a movie he can feel proud of stealing.