Writer-director David Mamet’s latest film “Heist” begins with a black and white Warner Bros. studio logo, perhaps an indicator that what follows will be a traditional, old-fashioned crime caper. The nostalgic throwback isn’t just a gimmick, but a subtle reminder that Hollywood is still capable of making them like they used to.

Indeed, Mamet’s “Heist” is a gripping adult thriller that relies more on sharp dialogue, acting and direction than on state-of-the-art razzle dazzle. Like Mamet’s “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner,” “Heist” is a con game, a clever cavort that ceaselessly puts you on the edge of your seat.

Even though we know very little about the participants, they are so vividly drawn and realized that we instantly recognize and embrace them. From the moment we meet Mamet’s characters, we find ourselves trapped in their web of deceit and lies.

Like all great film noir, “Heist” isn’t about good and bad. There are no good guys in “Heist,” just varying degrees of bad guys. Mamet is one of the very few modern writer-directors with the talent and smarts to pull this off. He tosses out the old cliché “honor among thieves” and creates an every man for himself undercurrent that constantly keeps us guessing what is going to happen next, and to whom.

Filled with scalpel sharp dialogue and diverting characters, “Heist” negates the notion that bigger is better. Mamet blows things up, but the real fireworks come from the intensity of the situations and the character’s reaction to them. More than once I found myself squirming in my seat, wishing I could shout out and warn the characters. It’s rare when a film has that kind of effect on me.

Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is a professional thief. When we first meet Joe and his motley crew, they are in the middle of a jewelry store heist. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill garden variety crooks, but a precision team of professionals who work in unison like a Swiss watch. It’s “Mission: Impossible” for mature audiences.

A veteran of his profession, Joe is at the top of his game. He has a young, beautiful wife named Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), a job he excels at, and dreams of retiring somewhere in the tropics. Joe’s retirement couldn’t come at a better time. In a humanitarian gesture, he allows a witness to the jewelry store heist to live, necessitating him to leave his image on the security camera.

Now a wanted man, Joe decides to cash in and leave the business. That decision doesn’t sit well with Bergman (Danny DeVito), Joe’s fence, who needs him to pull off one more heist. When Bergman refuses to pay them for the jewelry heist, Joe has no choice but to do the job. Bergman insists that his nephew Jimmy (Sam Rockwell) accompanying them on the job.

Joe’s partners in crime, Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) and Pinky (Ricky Jay), aren’t thrilled with the arrangement, but since they are broke, agree to go along. That includes Fran, who Joe sics on Jimmy as a diversion. As the last big heist draws near, Mamet makes sure that we are only fed enough information to appreciate the trip.

Mamet never feels the need to telegraph any of the plot points. Out of necessity, he keeps us in the dark as much as those being conned. Mamet wants to surprise us, and constantly does. Just when we think we have things figured out, he proves us wrong.

As his accomplices in crime, Mamet rounds up the usual suspects, including wife Rebecca Pidgeon, who is absolutely divine as a woman of many disguises whose biggest deceit may be her relationship with Joe. Mamet lays the groundwork for Fran’s ambiguity, but it is Pidgeon’s chameleon-like performance that makes the character so devious.

Ricky Jay, another Mamet favorite, hits just the right note as the team’s utility player, a man willing to throw himself into harms way to save a job from going South. Jay is always interesting to watch, and he brings Pinky to life with a soulful, almost sad performance that tells us this man has lived life.

Joe has a good friend in Delroy Lindo’s Bobby, a man of conviction willing to lay his life on the line. Lindo is so effective as Bobby that we soon forget we’re watching a performance. Same goes for Sam Rockwell’s Jimmy, who wears his pencil-thin mustache as am homage to all the weasels that came before him. Just as we believe in Lindo’s loyalty, we never trust Rockwell’s Jimmy. He’s bad news, but Rockwell never makes him obvious.

DeVito always makes a great villain, and his nasty turn as Bergman is no exception. He may be small in stature, but there’s nothing small about his performance. Whether as Bette Midler’s selfish husband in “Ruthless People” or as the Penguin in “Batman Returns,” you can count on DeVito to make being bad fun.

At the heart of “Heist” is Hackman’s wonderful performance as Joe, a man of honor who knows that virtue is in short supply when it comes to the company he keeps. Joe may be a thief, but he’s not a bad guy. That’s his shortcoming. Not once do we doubt Joe’s sincerity, and when things go from bad to worse, we trust Joe to do the right thing. Hackman is so convincing as Joe that we accept him warts and all.

That makes Mamet’s job behind the camera so much easier. With great dialogue and actors at work in front of the camera, all he has to do is make sure the camera is in the right place. One of Mamet’s strengths as a director is that he never allows the camera to interfere with the action. He knows what is happening in front of the camera is much more interesting than anything he can do behind it.


Surprises abound in Mamet’s latest con game


Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Sam Rockwell, Patti Lupone in a film directed by David Mamet. Rated R. 103 Minutes.


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