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'Heist' steals disbelief with smart setup, Hackman and DeVito

Friday, November 09, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Scams make the world of David Mamet go 'round. They can be full-blown confidence schemes, like the ruse in "The Spanish Prisoner." They can be the questionable ethics of businessmen, chronicled in "Glengarry Glen Ross." They can be dishonor among thieves, as in "American Buffalo." They can be words that say one thing but mean another, a hallmark of virtually all his plays and films.


RATING: R for language and some violence.

STARRING: Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Rebecca Pidgeon.

DIRECTOR: David Mamet.

WEB SITE: heist.warnerbros.com



In his new movie, "Heist," life itself is a scam. If the characters -- a band of professional thieves and their vicious, untrustworthy fence -- aren't conning their way into an illegal but very profitable payday, they're double-crossing each other to keep from being double-crossed themselves.

Almost nothing is on the up-and-up, and we know it. The fun lies in figuring out how it's going down, how far everyone is willing to go and who will prevail. If there's a letdown, it's that we start to look for the con and so we're not often taken by surprise, which is part of the kick.

But let's face it -- we love watching a smart con, as long as it's not happening to us. What is a magic act, a politician's promise or, for that matter, a well-made movie if not a deception in which we willingly participate by suspending our disbelief?

"Heist" starts with a smart con taking a necessary chance that almost literally blows up in his face. Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) and his merry men and woman are setting up an elaborate jewelry-store robbery when the unexpected happens, even though Moore plans for everything.

"I wouldn't clear my throat without a backup plan," he says. But this time, he has no choice but to remove his mask in order to save one life and maybe more. He pays the price of having his mug recorded for posterity by the security camera. So Joe figures he and the aforementioned woman -- his wife, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) -- will take their share of the money and run. Or, to be more accurate, sail away on his boat.

Enter unexpected development No. 2. The fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito), won't pay -- not until Joe and his gang pull off another job, involving the theft of Swiss gold. Worse, he insists that his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), go along for the ride. Jimmy thinks he's so smooth that Velcro won't stick to him. In fact, he'd be out of his depth in a parking-lot puddle. He should be an easy mark for Joe's crew, but Bergman knows better.

So will they actually go for the gold? And once they get it, who's going to get it -- the money, the shaft or one between the eyes?

Of all Mamet's films, this one features the most naturalistic dialogue. I hardly noticed the usual half-sentences doubling back on themselves and stylistically precise language. I did notice such lines as "She could talk her way out of a sunburn" and "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money."

Lesser personages than Hackman and DeVito might render these into howlers. But how can you go wrong with these guys, who might have been born to do Mamet -- the craggy veteran with eyes like hard ice, the diminutive wise guy who could kill you with sarcasm or bullets?

The movie's resort to violence in one critical sequence may have been inevitable but is somewhat disappointing -- it seems appropriate that the scam alone should have sufficed.

Ah, but throw in the always-dependable Delroy Lindo as Joe's right-hand man and Mamet regulars Pidgeon and Ricky Jay and you have as close to the real goods as you're going to get in this game of misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

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