Watching a David Mamet film is like nothing so much as watching a David Mamet film. It's nearly impossible to describe him accurately without resorting to his name. He is his own metaphor, his own adjective. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and even the remarkably tame The Winslow Boy, are jarring, unique affairs. Even movies that Mamet only wrote, such as The Untouchables, Wag the Dog and Glen Gary Glenn Ross -- the original stage play won the Pulitzer Prize -- carry the unmistakable and unshakable pulse of his distinctively brutal language.
This year's Mamet offering, Heist, is in step with Mamet's best work. Joe (Gene Hackman), his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), Bobby (Delroy Lindo), and Pinky (Ricky Jay) are a crack team of thieves. Joe and Fran want to quit the life of crime and sail away -- literally -- to live off their stolen riches. But of course, there are debts to be paid -- most onerously a personal one to Bergman, a local crime kingpin played by Danny DeVito. Bergman wants Joe to do one last job and makes him an offer he can't refuse.
If it sounds like a genre clich, that's because it is. And that's part of the point. The careful viewer will notice that the Warner Brothers title card that flashes at the beginning of Heist is the black-and-white 1930s version. Mamet's crime movie is less about crime than it is about crime movies. He's invoking past crime films and placing Heist not merely in context, but in ironic opposition. (It's a very Mamet-ian thing to do.) The characters in Heist act as if they know they are characters in a crime flick, exchanging painfully obvious dialogue or dropping one-liners that are soaked in cool.
If Heist nods towards crime genre dialogue, it also nods towards crime genre climaxes. A crime movie isn't complete, after all, without a pulsing finale, and Heist features no fewer than three. There's as much double-crossing and trickery as one would expect from Mamet, plus several surprisingly well-shot action scenes. (Be warned that the eponymous heist involves an airliner hijacking set at Boston's Logan Airport; though the plane is grounded, it will undoubtedly invoke uncomfortable memories for some viewers.)
Admittedly, fondness for Mamet is something that's acquired. Audiences are usually split, either loving him or hating him. He intentionally creates a great distance between viewer and film, and he likes to play with our expectations of what a movie is going to do, by turns ruining them or meeting them out of spite. But even for those who don't care for Mamet, Heist is worth seeing for the pleasure of watching three actors at the top of their game. Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito are equally devilish, hamming it up with Mamet's flowing, brutish dialogue. Ricky Jay is their perfect comic foil, and his performance is among the best supporting work we've seen on film this year.
-- Patton Dodd