Saturday, August 20, 2011

It’s like risk versus reward, baby: A look at some great heist films

Heist films have rules. They require a detailed plan and a highly-skilled crew. An objective, be it money, jewels, a top secret valuable plan or a highly coveted technological gadget is essential. Then the preparations begin. The site of the robbery is selected and every detail about it from its security system to its layout is memorized, the appropriate gear, weaponry, and technologies are secured - often of a highly advanced and complex nature - then finally, the heist goes down.

The best heist movies build pressure and suspense and the execution of the “perfect crime” is most effective when the audience gets caught up in it. There is the danger of getting caught in mid-heist and the possibility that one crew member will turn on the others, along with rooting for the crew to get the booty and to get away.

The heist movie is a formulaic, yet popular and beloved genre and it’s alive and well. Moviegoers have been treated to several great heist films in the last decade. Because it’s a genre with a long history and with such a large canon of films, coming up with only ten was a tough enterprise, so we aimed for variety and included what are for us, ten of the most memorable heist films.

Here are our first five films:

10. Point Break

A crew who call themselves the “Ex-presidents” split their time between surfing and robbing banks, and get pegged when an FBI agent goes undercover as a novice surfer, befriends the crew and plays a game of cat and mouse with the leader of the gang. The film is a campy one, but it’s action-packed, employs solid heist conventions and takes you on a bloody fun thrill ride.

9. The Italian Job

This remake features a stellar cast which includes Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Mos Def, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Edward Norton and Donald Sutherland. Add to that some stellar special effects including armored trucks falling into sewers, superb chase sequences involving a troupe of Mini Coopers, and an over-the-top, completely implausible, yet brilliantly executed final heist, and you’ve got one heck of an entertaining film.

8. Quick Change

Quick Change is memorable because it doesn’t conform to standard heist film conventions. Rather than concern itself with how the crew is going to get out of the bank after the heist, it employs a clever plot twist to set up the crew’s escape from the bank and then busies itself with how the crew is going to get out of the city. Quick Change is well-executed, well-acted and comical. Bill Murray, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid combine to make a unique and wacky crew and their escape from the city is rife with bad luck and obstructions.

7. Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs is the film that put Quentin Tarantino on the map as a director. What’s different about this heist film is that the audience isn’t privy to the heist itself, but only sees the events that take place before and after the robbery. The cast of characters and the actors who portray them are indelibly good and the way the story unfolds with random spots of arbitrary discussion in between is so quintessentially Tarantino and so damn good. This film is a great adventure in sniffing out the rat.

6. The Usual Suspects

Who is Keyser Söze? That is the mystery superbly spun that we, the audience, must solve along with five conmen tasked with carrying out a payback job for a criminal mastermind they’ve wronged at some point and must pay back now, but whose identity the men don’t actually know. The film is a slick and layered gem and a classic whodunit where nothing is as it seems and only the narrator knows what’s up until the very end. The film drops hints along the way, but preserves the mystery until the film’s final scene.

Stay tuned for our final five memorable heist films to be posted tomorrow.


  1. Nice list so far. I'm not a huge fan of The Italian Job remake, but it's not bad at #9 because it does have a good heist. I'm looking forward to seeing your top 5!

  2. If the next 5 films reveals you've chosen the Italian Job remake over the original i shall be extremely disgruntled indeed.

  3. dEmon2:35 pm

    The Italian Job? Really? Maybe storywise and effects-wise, but please don't include the cast or acting for that matter. Thanks to that movie, I can barely watch Edward Norton.

    I'm curious as to what's in the top five... I'm hoping The Good Thief makes an appearance. That was Nick Nolte at his best... and probably for the last time.

  4. I like all these movies. Notably The Italian Job which I think is a solid yet entertaining remake.

  5. I enjoyed The Italian Job as well. Edward Norton was awful in it but I had a lot of fun watching it.

    I completely agree that The Good Thief is a great film. Nolte's career really fell off after that film.

    I will not spoil the top five but, having seen JBT's full list, I will merely say that Dan and dEmon will be very disgruntled tomorrow. LOL

  6. I've only seen 3 of these, Point Break, Reservoir Dogs and Usual Suspects.
    all are great and worthy of their places on this list though.
    I look forward to seeing the top 5!

  7. Phips7:25 pm

    Great list. Point Break, Reservoir Dogs, and Usual Suspects are great films. Absolute class.
    Can't wait to see your top 5.

  8. @Dan Heaton - I'm glad that you like the list so far. Coming up with a top ten list no matter what the genre is always tough because inevitably every good film cannot make the cut and some good films get left off the list in lieu of others, but these were memorable ones for me.

    @Dan and dEmon - I gotta stand by the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the Italian Job remake as a heist film - Mos Def, Seth Green and Jason Statham delivered amusing performances and the effects were great. It was pure entertainment at its best.

    CS is right - you two will probably be disgruntled tomorrow. But hey, you did read my last post on film and subjectivity, didn't you?

    @thevoid99 - I'm glad to see some support for the Italian Job!

    @CS - Geez, I hate when my stuff disgruntles people - LOL.

    @Jack L and @Phips - I'm so glad to hear that you two are also fans of those three films. Point Break is one of those guilty pleasure films that's completely cheesy, yet delivers on exactly what it intends - pure action and over-the-top acting and entertainment.

    Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects are in an entirely different league - they are sensationally written, superbly acted and brilliantly directed, and they hold up so well after multiple viewings.

  9. First Mr. CS, thank you for the comment on Beats, Rhymes and Life.

    Second, interesting list so far. I must admit that The Usual Suspects' reputation never really gelled with me (which, really, applies to a lot of Bryan Singer). I felt bored and jerked around too much by the plot to really gel with it and was largely apathetic by the time the climax finally reared it's head.

    I'd also place Point Break a bit further ahead for the sheer fact that Kathryn Bigelow is always doing something with attraction and impulse that goes beyond the generic genre flash. The supporting cast for The Italian Job is pretty stellar as mentioned, so that does give it a slight entertainment edge.

    Can't really fault the rest of the choices, and I'm curious about the rest since these are all fairly recent films so far. So I suppose I'll have to wait until tomorrow :-)

  10. Point Break was a decent movie. It showed Keanu Reeves could do action.

    I've seen both versions of The Italian Job and I'm not in love with the original. The remake is a better movie, even if it is not better loved.

    You don't hear Quick Change mentioned much. I liked it when it came to video and then it was as if it disappeared from everyone else's memory.

    What can I say about Reservoir Dogs that hasn't already been said?

    I'm surprised The Usual Suspects isn't higher on the list. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even though I had figured out the reveal. It didn't hurt the movie for me.


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