2004. Directed by Gregory Jacobs.

THE SHOT: John C. Reilly is a grifter who spends a day training a new partner and trying to sell a counterfeit, highly valuable piece of currency.

TONE: Sharp, sober, clear-eyed, edgy.  John C. Reilly is amazing in a daring performance as one of the most unlikeable protagonists in recent film history.  Diego Luna is his green, but willing-to-learn apprentice.

Many twists.  Only one I found improbable.

Can’t say too much more.  Don’t want to give it away.

Criminal life lived at a workaday, primitive level, exactingly recreated.  Razor-sharp acting and direction.  Thing really gets under your skin.

DOES CRIME PAY?  Well, that would be telling.

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The Hard Word

2002. Directed by Scott Roberts.

THE SHOT: Guy Pearce and his gang of robbers are forced by an unscrupulous lawyer to undertake a job holding up a bookie convention.

TONE: Glib, sunny 00s noir.  Occasional violence, but mostly the protagonists don’t seem too concerned about anything going on, even when they find out they’re being set up to be killed.

THE JOB GOES SOUTH WHEN: You’ll never guess, but there’s a last-minute addition of — A TRIGGER-HAPPY, SHOTGUN WIELDING MANIAC!  In an ironic twist, he is also dyslexic.  And hilarity ensues.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Strange romantic subplots that start out of nowhere, end suddenly and have no impact on the narrative.  And, quite a bit more about blood sausage than I care to know.

LIFE LESSON: Women, apparently, are good after all.

DOES CRIME PAY? Ultimately, yes, very well.  A number of headaches on the way, but once you finally kill someone who needs to be killed, you get to be really cool.  Your gang even gets the slow-motion Reservoir Dogs “walking to the job in sunglasses” shot.

In a final, ironic twist, we never find out what the hard word is. Unless it refers to being able to understand some lower-class Australian criminal slang.
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Dear readers:

Please list for me your favorite heist movies.

Okay, it’s not a contest.
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How to Beat the High Cost of Living

1980. Directed by Robert Scheerer.

Mr. Scheerer directed a lot of television before and after this picture. It shows.

THE SHOT: Susan St. James, Jane Curtin and Jessica Lange play are suburban housewives who, financially pressed by the malaise of the Carter presidency, plot to steal a MILLION dollars from a shopping mall during a promotional stunt.

TONE: Kind of all over the place.  Never strays far from 70s TV movie comedy.  Animated titles borrow heavily from Peanuts specials, if that gives you any idea.  Senior citizens dress like hippies, adorable moppets swear like sailors, married couples trade gibes as though scripted by Neil Simon.

Susan St. James plays perky, Jane Curtin plays repressed, Jessica Lange plays flighty.

Lange, after King Kong but before Tootsie, has yet to find her voice as an actress.  She’s all over the place in this, flighty and stupid in one scene, then angry and imperious in the next, then fluttery and tragic in the one after that, none of them convincing.

There are feeble attempts to deal with feminists issues, but they conflict with the scripts need to have the women be ditzy.  Similarly, there are stabs at topical humor, including attacks on Carter, Reagan, the Germans, Japanese and Arabs.

Fred Willard has, for some reason, been asked to play dour and unfunny.  Dabney Coleman has been asked to play sincere and heartfelt.  Richard Benjamin plays his scenes as though in a completely different movie.  Might have been a better one, but still.

Garrett Morris has been given a genuine “surprise cameo” appearance, complete with “turn toward the camera” introduction, as if we the audience is expected to gasp and break out into applause when Garrett Morris suddenly appears on screen.

In a moment that defines “gratuitous nudity,” Jane Curtin performs a striptease and we go in for an utterly unnecessary closeup of some other woman’s breasts.

DOES CRIME PAY?  Yes, although, as is traditional in these types of films (SPOILER ALERT), at least half the money must be blown into the air to be shared by the townspeople.
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The Hot Rock

1972. Directed by the great Peter Yates.

THE SHOT: Robert Redford et alia steal a diamond from a museum, but have a hard time keeping ahold of it.  They must plan and execute four different capers in the course of the movie.

TONE: Light, high-spirited 70s realism.  Redford breezy and effortlessly charming in the lead, much more so than he is in The Sting, where he comes off as pretty but forced.  George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand, Zero Mostel and Moses Gunn are the colorful eccentrics who provide ethnic New Yorkness to Redford’s WASPy charisma.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Helicopter ride, featuring the World Trade Center under construction.

Paul Sand steals every scene he’s in.  What happened to him?

Downtown Theater pillar George Bartinieff appears as a museum guard, as well as (what’s this?) Christopher Guest (really?  Christopher Guest?  Is that even possible?).

Robert Weil is back as a safety-deposit-box guy, as is Lee Wallace (he plays the Mayor in Pelham, a role he would repeat in Batman, 17 years later).

This was one of my favorite movies when I was 11 years old.  I remember the first time it was on TV; back in the days before VCRs, you had to reserve TV time in our family to see what you wanted to see.  I told my mom that I wanted to make sure to see The Hot Rock months in advance, and when it finally came on, she was stunned to find it was a caper film.  She had thought it was going to be a rock music documentary.

DOES CRIME PAY?  Eventually, yes.
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2004. Directed by Bronwyn Hughes.

THE SHOT: Thomas Jane goes from being a guilt-ridden Johannesburg riot-police guy to becoming its most notorious bankrobber.

TONE: Gritty 00s realism.

Good use of locations.  Good sense of place.  Similar in tone to Butch Cassidy and Bonnie and Clyde, both of which it mentions.  Will not achieve the classic status of those films, but who am I to judge.

Old-fashioned bank robberies.  Johannesburg, apparently, was unprepared for the likes of Stander.  They walk in, take the money, walk out.  No one is killed, only a few people injured.

Stander starts out robbing banks to make some kind of political statement.  Later, he just does it for the money.  Still later, it’s unclear why he keeps it up.  The narrative follows a similar course of dissipation.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Several scenes of Thomas Jane nude.

DOES CRIME PAY?  For a long time, it does.  Stander and his gang apparently robbed 80 or so banks over a period of four years or so.  But justice catches up to Thomas Jane on the mean streets of, yes, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Of course, we know now that Thomas Jane went on to clean up the mean streets of Tampa as The Punisher.
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The Taking of Pelham 123

1974. Directed by someone named Joseph Sargent.

The direction isn’t bad at all, but Mr. Sargent, who is still among the living, worked mostly in TV afterward. Wonder why.

THE SHOT: Robert Shaw et alia hijack a subway train.  They want one MILLION dollars from a cash-strapped New York to let it go.  They have an INGENIOUS plan for escape.  Or at least I think they do, it’s never explained exactly how it works.

TONE: Pure gritty 70s realism.  Almost Dog Day Afternoon in its level of verisimilitude.  Complex action and chase scenes in real New York locations, using real New York people and, most impressively, real New York subway stations.  A great cast mostly disappears into their roles, which are purely functional.  Some of my favorite character actors, including Kenneth McMillan, Julius Harris, Martin Balsam, Jerry Stiler and James Broderick.  Iron-Eyes Cody makes an appearance in a subway car ad, and Tony Roberts showboats as a pushy mayoral aide.  Robert Weil looks exactly the same in this movie as he does in The Hudsucker Proxy, almost 20 years later.  Walther Matthau is the harried, efficient but unimpressed guy trying to stop the crime.

The use of “New York flavor,” involving bickering ethnics, hassled bueraucrats and traffic snarls is well-used.  The makers of Die Hard With A Vengeance studied this movie to get the same flavor.  Everybody’s got a story, everybody’s got a personal observation.  Doesn’t matter how tense the situation is or how tight time is, everyone is going to bicker about tiny little things.  It works.

Didn’t realize until now that the whole “criminals calling each other by colors” Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc, comes from here and not Reservoir Dogs.  Live and learn.

SMALL CONTRIVANCES: In a narrative this tight, anything contrived sticks out a mile.  In this case, Martin Balsam has a bad cold.  Turns out to be a major plot point.  Likewise, one of the subway passengers, we learn, is an undercover cop. 

In the biggest cliche of all, one of the hijackers is a trigger-happy psycho.  In an inversion of the cliche, he’s played by Gavin McLeod.

DOES CRIME PAY?  Heavens no.
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Bank Shot

1974. Directed by Gower Champion.

THE SHOT: George C. Scott and his crew will not rob a bank, they will steal a bank. A bank is building a new location and has a temporary bank set up in a mobile home in a mall parking lot. Scott and Co. will jack up the trailer, put it on wheels and tow it away with the guards still in it.

TONE: Cartoonish, garish, abrasive. Gritty 70s realism passed this caper by. Lots of “zany characters.” One wears a straw boater and drives a 20s automobile. One lives with his crazy mother. One is a black radical named Herman X. Scott himself has a lisp for some reason. All these zany touches are announced but never developed.

Bob Balaban is in this, looking all of 16 years old. Close Encounters was three years off. I think he spent the time growing his beard.  Joanna Cassidy is also on hand, and is quite funny and refreshing, honestly the most watchable performance in the movie.

REALISM: None. Action is cartoonish and slapsticky. Police procedures make no sense.  This is the kind of movie where the protagonist is described as a “genius” and “the best bank-robber in history” but surrounds himself with drooling idiots and takes advice from clowns.

DOES CRIME PAY? No. The money (SPOILER ALERT) goes off a cliff and into the sea. Scott swims from Santa Monica to Samoa (that is not a misprint).
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Pacino understands that this is an opera, about Men who Do What They Gotta Do and the Women who Love Them.

The script has a lot of plot, even for a three-hour movie, so there isn’t a lot of time for irony. Tough guys announce who they are, what they stand for and what they’re feeling at any given moment. Seems a little counterintuitive for tough guys, but the director is looking to humanize them, to make them accessible to an audience, especially women.

De Niro plays against the poetry of the script, holding back, holding back, holding back. Even when he’s announcing who he is and what he stands for, he makes it seem like he’s not telling you anything. He gets that Dispeptic De Niro look on his face, as if revealing himself makes him literally sick to his stomach. Pacino, on the other hand, goes in the other direction, blowing some lines up to absurd, laugh-inducing proportions. He carries the same sickness inside him, but he directs it outward, even when he’s announcing how he keeps everything inside (because it “Keeps me sharp. (snap) On the edge. (snap) Where I gotta be.”).

The story is preposterous, so the direction is crisp and efficient without drawing attention to itself. That makes the action scenes seem matter-of-fact and human somehow, exciting in a way a “slicker” directing style would not be. Another director might have employed a hundred different devices to “jazz up” the action sequences, but Mann keeps it simple and lets the mayhem of the moment speak for itself.

In a cast full of present and future stars (Dennis Haysbert! Natalie Portman! Wes Studi! Tone Loc! Hank Azaria! Jeremy Piven! Xander Berkeley! Mykelti Williamson! William Fichtner! Jon Voight! Henry Rollins! Danny Trejo [playing the role of “Trejo,” no less]!), Diane Venora has the job of being Pacino’s long-suffering wife. She is given some of the densest, most purple lines in the script (“I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you,” a moment of sober clarity unheard of in any of my messy breakup scenes) and somehow holds her own.
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