The Montreal-shot Heist does exactly what it’s supposed to

Though it has many similarities with The Score (also made in Montreal at the same time), Heist succeeds by doing less.

The film: Heist (2001)

Does Montreal play itself? It does not. The opening sequences (in Old Montreal) are meant to be in New York, but the majority of the film is set in and around Boston.

Most egregious local landmarks: The opening heist is filmed in and around what is now the Gault Hotel on Ste-Hélène street. The building was in the process of being turned into a hotel at the time, finally opening in 2002. It stands in for a jeweller’s here.

Danny DeVito’s character’s office is in the building at the corner of Mayor and St-Alexandre streets, right next to Place-des-Arts metro. It’s unclear whether the interior (which has a shabbier, schmatte-adjacent vibe) is also from there, but a scene in which Sam Rockwell gets kicked in the nads shows the surrounding streets clearly.

Most of the movie, to be fair, is set in the somewhat-remote country. Hackman’s boat shop is in île-Perrot, while the bulk of the airport scenes (which are plentiful) were shot at Mirabel. The final shootout (granted, this being a David Mamet film, the definitions of the words “final” and “shootout” are pretty lax) happens along Mill Street. It’s just close enough to definitely fit the Farine Five Roses sign in.

Notable local talent: Nearly everyone local shows up early on, since so much of the film is spent with the five or six main characters in close quarters. Mark Camacho shows up early on as a security guard, Mike Tsarouchas plays a hot dog vendor in the same scene and Tony Calabretta plays a guy manning a coffee truck at the airport (coffee figures prominently in the film). I suppose Andreas Apergis has the biggest role in terms of screentime — he plays a cop who thwarts a tentative plan — but no one has a very showy role. Mike Paterson is supposedly in here, playing a character with the same name as in Steal, but I couldn’t spot him in this either.

Gene Hackman and the Farine Five Roses sign

It’s not uncommon that two weirdly similar movies see release at almost the same time. Often, these are high-concept but easily-justifiable blockbusters with premises so clear (POTUS as action hero in Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, volcanoes gonna volcano in Dante’s Peak and Volcano) that it’s almost surprising they aren’t just recurring tropes. In other cases, however, the coincidences are somewhat weirder.

Both Heist and The Score are barebones heist movies starring a combination of roadworn A-listers and promising up-and-comers and directed by guys who wear little round glasses. Both have the most generic titles imaginable for films in their genre and both were shot in Montreal. Back in 2001, it was clear which title was the “winner”, so to speak. The Score had the impossible-to-top trifecta of Brando, DeNiro and Norton, which almost immediately made it legendary. Nearly 20 years later, The Score’s flaws are more apparent. It’s straightforward and barebones but dressed up in an illusion of grown-up luxury and jazzy atmosphere that doesn’t really pay off, and the clash of titans promised by its three leads is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they don’t have that much to do.

David Mamet’s Heist, on the flipside, presents an almost parodic simplicity. It’s called Heist and, sure enough, pretty much every shot and bit of dialogue pertains to the heist at hand. It’s pretty spartan visually, with cinematographer Robert Elswit bringing little of the pizzaz he’d give to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (to cite one example). Heist is a film both thematically and substantively concerned with notions of the practical and the necessary. It’s a film entirely uninterested in the chaff of a heist movie unless that chaff is in the ornate, ostentatiously Mamet-esque one-liners that its characters thrown around. Mamet seems positively obsessed with the mechanical functions of the heist movie, which contrasts rather sharply with the vocal-jazz-infused mahogany vibes of The Score.

Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is a career thief. Though he’s getting a little long in the tooth, he sees no real reason to stop just yet. He’s slowly planning for retirement by building a boat in the legitimate business he runs with his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), who’s also a member of his crew alongside Pinky (Ricky Jay) and Bobby (Delroy Lindo). Joe’s progressive retirement plans, however, take a sharp nosedive when he’s caught on a security camera during a job.

Sam Rockwell on Saint-Alexandre St.

Forced into retirement by this unforeseen development, Joe announces his plans to his fence Mickey (Danny DeVito), who does not welcome this life change with open arms. Mickey, you see, had planned for the crew to do at least one more job (jacking a shipment of gold off an airplane), and the costs of setting up that job were considerable enough that he withholds them unless they  decide to do the final job. Mickey tasks his hot-headed nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell, bringing forth a frantic and greasy James/Dave Franco energy that has all but disappeared from his work at this point) with tagging along to make sure the job gets done.

It’s pretty common to wax nostalgic about all the kinds of movies that they don’t make anymore, as if there aren’t more movies being made than ever before and as if all that exists now are superhero movies. There are still movies like Heist, though far fewer and with much more limited means, but there is something nostalgic about its determined, spartan approach to storytelling. It’s not even that Heist’s various twists and turns are that surprising, but they’re put forth with a singularity of purpose that’s hard to fault. Mamet writing about cons and heists is nothing new, of course, but Heist is so stripped-down that it’s practically punk rock.

Ricky Jay in an unidentified alleyway

It helps tremendously that Mamet has assembled (perhaps accidentally) a cast that can work wonders with his sometimes unwieldy dialogue. Great actors have been overwhelmed by the wordy, unnatural patter of his films, and unremarkable actors have found peculiar rhythms in the same way. Here, the casting is odd mainly for the Mamet connection rather the material. Hackman and DeVito in a heist movie isn’t implausible, but the idea of them trading barbs about the GNP of Bolivia is hardly a hole-in-one. Pretty much everyone manages to sink their teeth in their roles, no small feat considering the almost total lack of quantifiable back story or characterization. (Jay’s character has a niece, which is about as far as the movie goes towards giving these people a distinct inner life.)

Heist is in fact the absolute opposite of a stylistic exercise. Fairly indifferent in its mise-en-scène (its action scenes are particularly static, though Mamet attains a bizarre, quasi-Bressonian transcendence by the end), minimally scored, thematically familiar and shot matter-of-factly, Heist is a wholly successful attempt at trying to make exactly the movie advertised. If there’s something vaguely President’s Choice about the presentation, it only serves to confirm the sure hand controlling it all. ■