The arrival of Steve McQueen’s Widows has our alarms going off. It’s time to run down a list of the best heist movies since the 1995 release of Michael Mann’s Heat. Why Heat? Because there are heist movies before Heat, and heist movies after Heat. Below, you’ll find winking caper-comedies, psychological thrillers, meditative ruminations on age, and Heat. Because you gotta have Heat.
Chris Ryan: Heat ruined heist movies. Michael Mann imagined Los Angeles as an ocean, covered in neon algae, patrolled by two Ahabs. Al Pacino’s cop, Vincent, is chasing the white whale thief, Neil, who in turn, is chasing an almost mythical final score (aren’t we all?). When you say the words “bank robbery,” I immediately think of the downtown L.A. heist that brings the film to a climax. It has become the signifier to the sign. Within the subgenre, Heat has taken on a kind of biblical importance. It’s so influential —in its visceral depiction of action and its mythical portrayal of cop and robber—that it’s almost impossible to even think about another heist movie without relating it back to Heat. And yet somehow, after all these years, and all the Christopher Nolan homages, Heat still goes. It still surprises, still shocks, and still reveals new layers of meaning and mystery.
The Bank Job
Adam Nayman: I have no idea how historically accurate The Bank Job is. Supposedly, it’s based on the 1971 Baker Street robbery, in which a group of thieves burgled a series of safety deposit boxes from Lloyds of London, and were never to be seen again. Roger Donaldson’s cheerful, upbeat caper flick imagines that the robbers were actually ringers hired by MI5 to retrieve sensitive material—i.e., photos of Princess Margaret at an orgy—under the guise of a garden-variety break-in. This doesn’t seem likely, but print the legend, I say. Casting scowling Jason Statham as England’s last, best hope to preserve the dignity and honor of the royal family is funny stuff, and the film as a whole is carried by its star’s sweetly roughneck charm; I’d rewatch this before Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch any day. Bonus points for getting Mick Jagger for a cameo—his first foray into U.K. genre cinema since Performance.
Nayman: Femme Fatale isn’t really a heist movie so much as a movie that happens to feature a heist—an intricate jewel theft at the Cannes Film Festival in which Rebecca Romijn’s Laure literally peels $10 million worth of diamonds off the half-naked body of a pretentious director’s date. The joke is that while the audience in the film is stuck being bored by middlebrow art cinema, the Palais theater bathroom is a staging ground for the kind of suspense, intrigue, and lurid, erotic thrills that we all secretly long for at the movies. It’s art and trash, just down the hall from one another. Laure gets away clean with the diamonds, while Brian De Palma gets away with transforming the typically alpha-male tropes of the heist movie into a softcore set piece for the ages.
The Good Thief
Nayman: The French director Jean-Pierre Melville was peerless at making precise, poetic crime films in which every piece of plot and character falls into place at exactly the right moment. Neil Jordan pays homage to his predecessor in The Good Thief, a remake of Melville’s 1956 classic Bob le Flambeur, that casts Nick Nolte as a retired thief coaxed into pulling—all together now—one last job. The ancient archetype of the gangster as a figure of style and grace is filled ably by Nolte, who invests Bob with the broken-down elegance of a man whose addictions—crime, as well as heroin—are what keep him going, even as they threaten to end his career (and his life). The imagery of the French Riviera lit up at night gives The Good Thief its surface beauty, but Nolte’s deeply felt performance is its bruised soul.
Nayman: “Everybody needs money; that’s why they call it money.” Only David Mamet could write a line like that, and it’s nice to remember a time when he churned out witty, intricate thriller scripts like House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Heist—the latter’s title as simultaneously abstract and self-evident as the aforementioned joke about money. The cast is an embarrassment of riches, from Gene Hackman as not-quite-retired jewel thief Joe to Danny DeVito as his vicious fence Mickey to Mamet’s mascot, Ricky Jay, as a guy named Pinky. Generally, you know it’s a good genre movie if there’s a guy named Pinky. The scene when Joe’s crew empties out an airplane’s cargo hold by posing as emergency personnel is shot and played without dialogue—proof that the most profane Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of all time can also be a pretty good director when he decides to keep his mouth shut.
Nayman: In a way, the plot of Spike Lee’s most straightforward movie provided a foreshock of Occupy Wall Street: After breaking into the biggest bank in New York’s Financial District, Clive Owen and his team of skilled, masked professionals basically just sit down and bide their time. They’re after something more than money, and the solution to that riddle rests with Denzel Washington’s hostage negotiator Keith Frazier—a wary, chatty cop who is also a low-key contender for the most purely entertaining character in the actor’s 21st-century repertoire. Beat for beat, Inside Man is generic stuff, but its twists are so historically and politically loaded that it could only really be a Spike Lee joint. It’s got the same roiling, sweaty, big-city energy as the director’s earlier NYC melting-pot classics like Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour.
Ryan: If you’ve ever wondered what Dog Day Afternoon would look like if Al Pacino was (1) played by Jean-Claude Van Damme and (2) Jean-Claude Van Damme was playing himself, this is the meta movie for you. Proving 15 years after the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was not, in fact, the Last Action Hero, Van Damme riffs on his real-life celebrity, tumultuous personal life, and ass-kicking screen persona. In the background, director Mabrouk El Mechri does a credible imitation of a glossy Eurotrash heist movie, slyly satirizing the genre’s tropes without condescension. The bad guys just want the money, but Van Damme—the character and the star—is trying to get his hands on something more valuable: a little bit of respect. And, like a true pro, he ends up stealing his own movie.
Ryan: If you forget the increasingly self-aware sequels and the Extended Ocean Family Universe, then Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to reanimate Rat Pack swagger looks like what it is: a beautifully made, perfectly cast piece of mainstream entertainment made to measure for its stars. It’s also a wonderful metaphor for movie-making, with George Clooney’s Danny Ocean as the handsome frontman for a team of technically proficient, professionally self-effacing collaborators, each of whom contributes to a plan built in equal parts on glamour, illusion, misdirection, and improvisational bullshit. Because Ocean’s Eleven are robbing a casino run by an asshole (Andy Garcia, the film’s secret MVP), it’s hard to hold their greed against them; 16 years later, Soderbergh would try to conjure up the same affectionate anti-heroism with Logan Lucky, with lesser (but still enjoyable enough) results.
Nayman: I like to think of Ronin as the last great action movie of the 20th century: an analog masterpiece that uses sweaty, flesh-and-blood actors and virtuoso rubber-on-concrete choreography (including the best car chases in any 1990s film) to create the kind of weightless sensations more recently synthesized by CGI. Everything about John Frankenheimer’s French-set thriller is old-school, starting with its title, which alludes to samurai culture and its codes of honor, which of course goes only so far among thieves. “Everybody’s your brother till the rent comes due” growls Jean Reno, who’s second billed to Robert De Niro but absolutely owns Ronin from beginning to end. The script was rewritten by David Mamet, who added not only dialogue but some of the dizzying plot complications of his vintage crime thrillers. The direction by Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) is as crisp and propulsive as it gets.
Nayman: I already wrote a bit about Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s movie back at TIFF and I haven’t rewatched it since; I still think it’s more impressive as an exercise in style—and as a showcase for its cast—than as a straight-up heist movie, especially since it compresses most of the get-the-money-and-get-out stuff into the final act. But as an attempt to fully contextualize and dramatize the impulse to steal—not out of greed but rather as a means of survival—as well as flipping the alpha-male ethos of movies like Heist and Heat on its head, Widows is fascinating stuff: It offers genre pleasures framed by deeper social and political themes.