written and directed by David Mamet with Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, and Rebecca Pidgeon opens Nov. 9 at Meridian, Metro, and others
WE KNOW JOE is a good guy, yet also at the end of his criminal career, when he opts not to shoot a witness to a big jewel heist that he and his crew planned down to the minutest, most fastidious detail. Mercy is a sign of softness, as his colleagues unsentimentally observe. "Walk away," they tell him. "You got old."
They have a point. Joe is played by 71-year-old Gene Hackman. And since Joe is married to a much younger woman (Heist director David Mamet's own younger second wife, Rebecca Pidgeon), it's hard not to read the dramatist's own career anxieties into his movie's laboriously twist-filled plot. Behind every trick, reversal, and con there lurks the same question: Has the old guy lost his stuff? Can he, criminally speaking, still get it up? Mamet is now 54, and virility plainly still matters to him.
Accordingly, Joe repeatedly brandishes his fists to knock down men decades his junior. Often on the beating end is Jimmy (The Green Mile's Sam Rockwell), the nephew to Joe's devious fence (Danny DeVito), who extorts cash-strapped Joe into attempting what DeVito calls "the other thing, the Swiss thing"—an audacious theft of gold bars from a cargo jet. Mamet's long career has attuned us to that key word: thing. Enunciated across split lips, heard by cauliflower ears, "thing" is always repeated twice in Mamet-speak. Fans love the redundancy, the reconsideration and different emphases this doubling implies. It has one meaning the first time, another the second. Things are mutable, unreliable, treacherous. Things go wrong. Things bite back.
BUT JOE GOES ahead with an elaborate scheme rife with double crosses, bait and switches, and shell-game deceptions. (He even enlists his wife in the plan, further complicating lucre with love.) Has the gold actually been stolen? Can you find it? Are you sure?
The murky uncertainty of who's fooling whom threatens to wipe the self-satisfied smile off Joe's face, as the sage old leader finds his seniority questioned by the young gun he's schooling in crime (echoing earlier Mamet plays). Here the pupil is Jimmy, a forced addition to Joe's crew (Mamet regular Ricky Jay and Clockers' Delroy Lindo) who disrupts the larcenous, good-natured surrogate family. Their tough-guy (and tough-gal) bantering grows more tense under the strain; mutiny and betrayal are hinted at, and weaknesses probed.
As with his auspicious 1987 directorial debut, House of Games (shot in Seattle), Mamet here savors the long-brewing surprises and deceptions that often leave audiences feeling flat-footed but amused. Last year's movie set spoof State and Main and 1997's espionage romp The Spanish Prisoner showed the lighter side to such chicanery: surprise endings within surprise endings, wheels within wheels. The problem for Mamet, having repeated such devices so many times, is that we now expect them, which undercuts their effect. (His tired, too-familiar yakfests also feel borrowed from American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.)
Mamet does give Heist a reasonably taut structure that elides the intermediary criminal planning and keeps us constantly off balance. He further tosses in some conventional crime-movie elements (fisticuffs, burning rubber, and an unsatisfactory shootout), but no one would mistake Heist for exciting. What's worse, and surprising for a Mamet script, is the shortage of good dialogue. Ironically, the picture would've worked better if he'd put more effort into his old craft, writing, and forgone the Hollywood pyrotechnics. In other words: Give us more talk, less action.