Based on the novel The Home Invaders, Thief follows an expert jewel thief who finds himself in a tough situation when he agrees to do a one-time jewelry heist for a Chicago mob boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). An ex-convict, Frank (James Caan) finally seems to have everything going his way. By day he owns both a car dealership and a bar, and by night he steals high end jewelry from the toughest safes in town with the help of his friend Barry (James Belushi). However the one thing that is missing from Frank’s life is a family, which he hopes to start with Jessie (Tuesday Weld). Unfortunately Leo has other plans for Frank and sees their one-time partnership more as a life time arrangement.
If you have encountered any of Michael Mann’s other crime films than you know what to expect from Thief. While interesting at times, it often feels like a paint-by-numbers production. The film follows several genre clichés including the corrupt cops looking to extort Frank and the one last job scenario. Being a Mann film, Thief does have some nice tension sprinkled throughout. In one particular theme Mann draws out a sequence where Frank is returning to his car dealership unaware he his about to be ambushed by Leo’s men. The scene really does keep the audience on the edge as there are several outcomes that can occur in those few moments.
It was also nice to see that the big heist is not shown in detail. Mann displays how Frank conducts his robberies at the very beginning of the film but never goes into that level of detail during the main heist he commits for Leo. In many ways the heist Leo orchestrates is not really important at all. The film is more about the honor, or lack there of, amongst thieves. Frank sees himself as a man with nothing to lose, yet Leo is quick to point out that his family responsibilities no longer allow him to have that prison mentality.
The back and forth between Frank and Leo is great, however not enough of it is featured in the film. More moments like that would have helped to elevate the film. What really hurts the film are the elements that do not directly relate to Frank’s burglaries, mainly his relationship with Jessie. The love arc between Frank and Jessie feels rushed and unfocused. The film would have been better served had Jessie’s character been developed further.
The saving grace for this film is the performances. Caan is enjoyable as he carries that same level of swagger that he had in The Godfather. Frank comes off a little too invincible for my liking in the last twenty minutes, but that has more to do with Mann’s script rather than Caan’s performance. It should also be noted that both James Belushi and Willie Nelson give pleasantly surprising performances in their supporting roles. In the end, despite some tense moments, Thief is not a film that will leave a lasting impression. It recycles themes that have already been covered far better in other films of this genre.