Thrilling 'Heist' steals a stash of caper-film ideas

A stash of cash. One last job. The perfect plan, the careless guard, the last-minute hitch. The smooth-talking con artist and the new guy too big for his britches. The seasoned old thief and his sexy young girl.

We've seen these ingredients in more movies than we can count - crime pictures, mystery films, detective dramas, police adventures. Some are grim and gory, others ironic or lighthearted.

The most spirited often fall into the category of caper movies - stories about intricate crimes dreamed up by clever, even courageous crooks who stake their lives on being able to outsmart cops who'll do anything to stop them or hunt them down.

Caper films are making another stab at the box office this season. David Mamet's feisty "Heist" is a probable hit this week, and Steven Soderbergh's version of "Ocean's Eleven," a remake of the 1960 thriller, is coming next month.

What keeps caper movies so popular with every new generation of moviegoers? There's no easy answer, but clues aren't hard to find. On one hand, we enjoy the logic of a well-structured crime yarn - the methodical reasoning used by the crooks to plan their job, and the systematic sleuthing of the cops.

On the other, we like the vicarious experience of breaking society's rules. It's a rare moviegoer who doesn't root for the bad guys at some point in the story, if only to heighten the enjoyment when they finally get caught.

The best caper movies play on this trait, as Mamet does in "Heist," where Gene Hackman's master thief is as charming in his personality as he is unscrupulous in his deeds.

Caper films haven't been a major source of entertainment in recent years, partly because they don't lend themselves to the screen-filling special effects that younger audiences currently crave.

Still, a few solidly crafted thrillers have captured the genre's enticing elements. "Absolute Power" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" took old-fashioned approaches with some success. Art theaters have drawn crowds by reviving European classics like "Rififi," the granddaddy of "Ocean's Eleven" and other casino-heist movies, and "Band of Outsiders," the comedy-thriller that induced director Jean-Luc Godard to quip, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun."

And time-tested caper films remain available at video outlets.

It's easy to find such perennial crowd-pleasers as "The Killing," directed by the late Stanley Kubrick, and postmodern variations such as "Reservoir Dogs," the ferocious thriller that put Quentin Tarantino on the map.

Mamet loves the clockwork precision of well-planned caper tales, as he showed in "House of Games," his first major film, and "The Spanish Prisoner," one of his best. His new "Heist" is an ingenious example of the genre and a loving tribute to it.

Hackman plays a jaded criminal who knows he's getting too old for this business, even though his pretty young wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) doesn't seem to think so. Prodded by his boisterous boss (Danny DeVito) and helped by longtime accomplices Delroy Lindo and Ricky Jay, he sets out to steal a shipment of gold from a cargo plane. As in many caper classics, the boss makes him work with a pig-headed protégé (Sam Rockwell) whose mouth is bigger than his brain.

"Heist" is fun to watch for the step-by-step suspense of the meticulously mapped-out theft, and the less-predictable suspense of seeing things go wrong when the mismatched robbery gang gets to feuding. Hackman's character has such a been-there-done-that demeanor that it's hard to imagine his ideas not panning out. ("He's so cool that when sheep go to bed, they count him," another character says.) But a life of crime is never easy, and his partners find so many ways of messing up the job that only a first-class felon could get it back on track. "I wouldn't tie my shoes without a backup plan," he announces near the end.

Mamet plugs the picture so snugly into traditional caper-film conventions that comparisons with bygone classics are impossible to resist. Connoisseurs may complain that "Heist" has less psychological depth than "Rififi," fewer dazzling visuals than "Topkapi" or the original "Thomas Crown Affair," less explosive menace than "Reservoir Dogs," and less biting originality than Mamet's own "Spanish Prisoner."

But view it on its own merits, and you'll find it an above-average specimen of its entertaining breed. The ultimate challenge of making a first-rate caper movie is dishing up often-used ingredients with enough novel twists to make them seem familiar and fresh at the same time. Mamet soars over the hurdles with energy and imagination to spare.

Rated R; contains violence and much vulgar language.

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