The thing with men is, they do the man thing. The thing, you know, the thing — maybe it’s a deal, a swindle, a do-si-do with a woman. Usually there’s money involved, always a double cross or three. Whatever it is, David Mamet’s all over it, writing the hell out of it, inventing switcheroos on top of switcheroos so that you need a scorecard to keep track of who’s conning whom, and even then you’d be wrong and you know it. Hell, you look forward to the fleece, the more so because every Mamet fleecer’s got a fleecer on his tail.
In Heist, a succinctly titled caper separated at plot birth from The Score, Mamet creates a world of thieves, fences, unreliable women (a reliable Mamet signature), and disappearing bars of gold. It’s a nice bit of dramatic sleight of hand, cute — to quote the playwright — as a Chinese baby. And if it’s not up to the cups-and-balls elegance of previous Mamet movies like The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games, if it piles on more psychological fake-outs than is safe in a setup this size — well, at least it’s got that talk, that language, that thing Mamet does that is at this point as identifiable as the cadences of the Bard. (We’ve seen Shakespeare done in modern-day dress; it may be time to speak Mamet in tights and tunics.)
And oh, you betcha, does that language invigorate the performances of everyone involved, to a man, each in on the thing. Gene Hackman (he’s in the zone; he always is) plays Joe Moore, a cool, aging pro who wants to get out of the business and sail south to warm weather with his younger cookie of a wife, Fran (as always, the filmmaker’s actual wife, Rebecca Pidgeon). Joe runs a tight crew — Delroy Lindo and Mamet regular Ricky Jay do the honors as henchmen Bobby and Pinky — and everyone’s ready to take a breather. But sonofabitch fence Bergman (Danny DeVito) has one more job in mind — ”the Swiss thing” — and not only is he not taking no for an answer, he’s sending his green, hepped-up nephew Jimmy (Sam Rockwell) along for the ride.
Substitute Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and Edward Norton for the thief, the fence, and the hothead, and you’ve got The Score, or at least The Score minus half a dozen gotchas. But there’s no substitute for the zing of the talk and the walk; Mamet loves language but he also admires the guys-doing-stuff beauty of well-executed, precisely timed physical maneuvers. Hackman and DeVito, in particular, savor their roles like medium-rare steaks; Rockwell wears the cheap pleather of Jimmy’s ethics like he’s flaunting mink; and even Pidgeon grates less than she usually does in the company of such men. And when they’re not talking, these grubbers are finessing, masquerading, getting things done with their brawn and their brains. Cute. Cute — to quote the playwright — as a pail of kittens.