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Who Are You in the Bank-Robbery Movie Scene?

In honor of the new film ‘Den of Thieves,’ a breakdown of all the required roles for a cinematic heist

A collage of characters from heist movies New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures/Miramax Films/Film 44/Sony Pictures/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Who are you in the bank-robbery movie scene?

That’s a version of a question that Bill Simmons asked Jason Concepcion, Mark Titus, and me five months ago when we recorded the Rewatchables podcast about Point Break, a movie about an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers who rob banks. It’s a question I’d thought about prior to that moment (anyone who has ever been in a bank, I would argue, has, at one point or another, imagined robbing it). And also one I’ve thought about since that moment, particularly this week, as we near the release of Den of Thieves, a new bank-robbery movie starring Gerard Butler that is likely going to be bad (but could possibly end up being perfect).

So: Who are you in the bank-robbery movie scene?

There are a bunch of different recurring characters in bank-robbery movie scenes (or heist movie scenes, if you want to make this more inclusive) for you to choose from. There’s the chameleon (the person who can blend in anywhere). And there’s the electronics expert (around for only the higher-end jobs). And there’s the explosives expert (remember when Mos Def played a hard-of-hearing man with a conk in The Italian Job?). And there’s the lone-wolf pragmatist (Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs remains the best ever). And there’s the bank manager who tries for half a second to stop or stall the robbery (the GOAT bank manager is the one in Point Break, because as soon as the robbers find out he’s the one with the keys to the vault, he hands them to a teller so they’ll take her instead of him, which is fucking hilarious).

There are more and more and more. If we were to highlight the most common and essential ones, though, they’d be:

The getaway driver. This person is, quite simply, in charge of making sure the team gets away after the robbery. They usually sit outside of the bank in the car waiting for the others to come running out, loose dollar bills spilling out of duffel bags, shouting about something that did or did not go wrong. (There are certainly instances where they will go into the bank with the others, but usually that’s the case when someone isn’t necessarily a “getaway driver,” but rather just the person who happens to be driving.)

To be a good getaway driver, you have to be good at driving (duh). You also have to be calm under the highest level of pressure, capable of insta-reacting to your surroundings (because you will inevitably, at some point during the escape, drive the wrong way down a heavily trafficked road), and, most importantly, forward-thinking, because that’s really what it is that separates the getaway drivers who get their partners to safety from the getaway drivers who get their partners killed. You have to have a plan in place; something beyond just “drive away from the scene of the crime fast.” You have to have, say, a second car hidden off somewhere that you can all transition over to, or a way to get lost in a crowd quickly, or a way to divert the attention of the police chasing you on to someone else. (Also, it would appear to be very helpful if you have an indiscriminate and cool name like “Baby” from Baby Driver or “Driver” from Drive or “The Driver” from The Driver or “Wheelman” from Wheelman, though that’s not a Have-To.)

Are you this one?

Four people sitting on the roof of a house in ‘Set It Off’ New Line Cinema

The enforcer. This is the person in charge of making sure that everyone in the bank knows that the bank robbers aim to take no shit from anyone. They are always at least 30 percent unbalanced, and usually they will kill someone who didn’t all the way deserve to die. (The best move any enforcer has is busting someone in the face with the butt of their gun. It’s an exactly perfect enforcer thing to do to someone.) The enforcer is who I’d want to be if I were able to rearrange my DNA into something it’s not; something bigger, bolder, and more vengeful. Since I can’t, though, and since I’m stuck inside of my regular body controlled by my regular brain, I suspect it’s much more likely I would be …

The jumpy one. This person is the least poetic, least noble of the group. Their skittishness will almost always (a) ruin the robbery (like in American Heist when the one guy left early in the van because he got too scared), or (b) cause someone who wasn’t supposed to die to die. (The way the moment usually plays out is they’ll shoot someone in the chest and then the other robbers will look at them and maybe one will yell at them and they’ll yell back something like, “I saw him move, man! He made a move! I had to take him out!”) The only time the jumpy one has ever been cool in a bank-robbery movie was in The Place Beyond the Pines, but that was only by default because Ryan Gosling, who was robbing banks by himself, had to be all the parts of the crew.

Note: If we can hop back to the enforcer category for a second, we should for sure highlight Cleo from Set It Off. She was the enforcer in that movie. She took what will, for all of eternity, be the greatest picture any enforcer has ever taken.

Are you either of these?

The leader. During the robbery, the leader is the person who, more often than not, is the one responsible for talking to the tellers and customers and security guards in the bank as it’s being robbed. (Others in the group will talk, but mostly it’s just them shouting at people to lay down and stay still, or it’s them shouting about how much time is left before they have to leave.) Really, though, all of the heavy work of the leader is done prior to the robbery, as they are the one who plans and organizes everything and assembles everyone. George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan from the Ocean’s franchise are both wonderful leaders and make for superb examples here. They are smart, funny, confident, and always at least 2 miles ahead of everyone else. My personal favorite bank robbery leader, however, is Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell from Inside Man. The bank robbery that he planned and executed remains the greatest of ever of always of forever.

A note: If a band of bank robbers seems democratic and equal in power, you can usually figure out which one is the leader by watching to see who jumps up the counter and oversees everything from there. Whoever does that is the one in charge.

Are you this one?

The person who’s in charge of getting the money. They get the money, which is a far trickier job than you’d assume, what with the exploding dye packs and nervous tellers and whatnot. The most effective way anyone handled a nervous teller was in Takers. They anticipated her nervousness and then used it to help them escape. (What they did was Paul Walker waited for her to press the emergency robbery button under her window, then had her call in that there’d been a robbery, then one of the robbers who was dressed as a security guard went to the roof and pretended to be shot. A news helicopter who’d overheard the teller’s distress call landed to try to help him. He jumped up, pulled a gun on them, then the other robbers came out and they used the helicopter to fly away to their escape cars. And so I’ll say it again: You’re nothing without a good escape plan.)

Are you this one?

And the customer who decides he wants to be a hero. Generally, this is an off-duty police officer who just so happens to be in the bank when the robbery happens. Also generally: The scene ends with him having shot one or two of the bank robbers because they were able to surprise the group, but then one of the remaining robbers blows a hole or two in their chest and that’s that. Probably the most enjoyable twist on this was in the very excellent Hell or High Water when the robbers robbed a bank in a small, rural Texas town, and basically everyone in there had a gun and not only opened fire on them, but also gave chase until they got scared off by a giant assault rifle.

Are you this one?

Which one are you?

Who are you in the bank-robbery movie?