— This summer’s biggest hit, “Inception,” put a novel twist on the caper film by setting its action in the world of dreams. But you don’t need to go quite so high-concept to get some juice out of the heist movie, one of the most reliably entertaining variations on the cops-and-robbers story for as long as there have been movies about crime. The latest straight-up heist film to hit the big screen is “Takers,” out Aug. 27 and starring Idris Elba (“The Wire”), Hayden Christensen, Paul Walker (“The Fast and the Furious”), rapper T.I. and singer Chris Brown.
Heist films are one of the most formula-bound of genres, but that can be a big part of the fun of watching them. The basic drill is always the same — a group of thieves work together to pull off some seemingly impossible job — but the best heist movies stay fresh while letting viewers indulge in the vicarious thrill of getting away with the perfect crime. Here’s how “Takers” fits in with its shadowy brethren.
Few other kinds of movies encourage us so strongly to sympathize with the bad guys. The heroes of a heist film are the ultimate rogues, living the high life by breaking the rules. They’re our surrogate Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich and giving to, well, themselves. They are the criminals we’d like to be ourselves — the supercool George Clooney or Frank Sinatra in the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, or the dapper Pierce Brosnan in “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
But keeping viewer sympathy isn’t an easy trick. There’s a thin line between a rogue and a thug, and the thieves have to have some admirable qualities. Heisters are clever and daring, and they’re also meticulously careful; crime is their job, and they approach it as professionals.
Smart pros don’t make mistakes that get them caught, or that hurt anybody. That’s not to say guns or dynamite are out of the question — this is an action-movie genre, after all — but in a heist film, violence is avoided, and a sign that someone screwed up. Heisters aren’t loose cannons; they use their brains before their brawn. Elba, who plays ringleader Gordon Jennings in “Takers,” excels at this kind of role. His drug lord Stringer Bell on “The Wire” is fearsome because he’s smart, and being built like a brick wall is just a bonus.
No less important, particularly in the case of “Takers,” is that heist-film antiheroes ooze style and glamour. Heist movies are the gleaming diamonds of the often gray and gritty crime genre. That’s not always the case — the hardscrabble pros of classics like “The Asphalt Jungle” or “Rififi” are winners at robbery and losers at life. The crew in “Takers,” though, know how to spend a million, not just steal it. They’re disciplined enough to take on just one job a year to keep the police from tracking them down, but they live like kings: flashy suits, fast cars and penthouse apartments.
The daring and complex robberies at the heart of heist movies require a whole crew. The ringleader is usually a seasoned veteran. Often, he’s tired of the criminal lifestyle and wants out, after doing one last job that will set him up for life. To do that, he assembles a motley crew, each of whom brings a special criminal talent to the table. Safecrackers, demolitions expert, con artists — whatever the job requires. The “Takers” crew includes Christensen as A.J., who plans the job, and Brown as an escape artist nimble enough to evade the police by vaulting cars on foot in the middle of traffic.
A heist film isn’t just a story featuring a robbery — the robbery is the very heart of the story. Everything revolves around it. More than anything, heist movies are about how a crime is committed, not why. The prize can be almost anything valuable enough to require elaborate protection. The bigger the prize, the more compelling the crime: A legendary diamond in “The Pink Panther,” a jeweled scepter in “The Score,” even a computer chip in “Sneakers.” In “Takers,” the lure is $25 million in cash — a much larger stake than the experienced crew is used to, but one they find too tempting to resist.
The early part of a heist movie carefully sets up just how well-protected the prize is. Along the way to the big score, there’s always a few smaller hurdles to overcome, letting the thieves show us some early razzle-dazzle before the main event. The crew in “Rififi” figure out how to disable a high-tech alarm with fire-extinguisher foam; Gene Hackman in “Heist” slips a gun past a metal detector by hiding it in a coffee cup; in “The Score,” Edward Norton hits on a clever way to hide in plain sight by pretending to be mentally challenged and getting hired as a bank janitor.
The theft itself involves careful planning, trickery and cons, precision timing, technical wizardry, physical derring-do and pure chutzpah. Meticulously executed, it usually takes the entire middle third of the movie. A good heist movie not only shows you a magic trick, but lets you in on how it was done. The “Takers” job involves detonating the road underneath a moving armored car, then breaking in from below the street — an appropriately underworld touch.
Even after the loot is in the bag, a thief’s work is never done. One ever-present worry, of course, is the law. The police don’t necessarily have to have a big presence, but the long arm of the law always seems just offscreen, waiting for one wrong move. The cat-and-mouse game between lawbreakers and the law is a cornerstone of great drama — one of the best examples being Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s complex battle in “Heat.” “Takers” pulls a page from that playbook by giving the criminals a detective nemesis played by Matt Dillon, who’s been chasing them so long he’s becoming obsessed.
Besides the police, there are other criminals to worry about. In “Takers,” the crew must deal not only with cops, but a rival gang of Russian mobsters and potential treachery from within their own group, via T.I.’s character, Ghost. Ghost once led the crew, but was arrested and sent to jail, leaving the others free to enjoy their ill-gotten gains, and feels like they don’t appreciate his sacrifice. So when he comes to them with the armored-car job he learned about in prison, they’re skeptical: Is he still their friend, or is he out for revenge?
T.I. quips that they should “trust greed” if they can’t trust him. Especially in a heist movie, those can be ominous words. Once the job is over, the heist film moves into its last phase, the getaway — and double-crosses are standard job hazards here. The real lesson any good heist movie has for its characters isn’t to trust greed — but to trust no one.