by Ed Symkus

David Mamet has long been known as a master of the word. Sometimes they come flowing out of his characters' mouths, sometimes they're delivered around the perfectly timed pauses that he calls for in his direction. Usually they're quite dramatic, and invariably they're intermingled with curses. But in Heist, he's added a bit more humor to the verbal mix.

When Sam Rockwell's vile Jimmy Silk is told he must be quiet, he replies, "I'm gonna be quiet as an ant pissing on cotton." Hey, let's hear it for the teacher who taught Mamet about similes. And it gets better, or maybe worse. When another character is told about an upcoming criminal caper, he says that it's a cute plan, "cute as a Chinese baby." A picture springs to mind of Mamet sitting at an old manual typewriter laughing uproariously as he writes this stuff.

Yet even though the film has a lot of these little zingers, it's no comedy. It's a down-and-dirty study of people trapped in a criminal life, some of whom thrive on it -- financially and emotionally -- and some who want nothing more than to get out while they can.

Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) and his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) want out. They and their crack team -- Bobby (Delroy Lindo) is the strong-arm, Pinky (Ricky Jay) is in charge of damage control -- have made some sizeable amounts of change through a series of jewel robberies. Now it's time for Joe and Fran to hop on a boat and head south for a new life.

But in the film's only hint at cliche, there's one more job to be done, one more caper dreamed up by slimeball master planner Bergman (Danny DeVito), who refuses to turn over Joe's share of the loot from the last heist until he commits to pulling off a massive gold bar number known only as "the Swiss job." Unfortunately, Bergman also makes his nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), part of the package, just to make sure nobody runs off with all the goods.

With all this as the setup, and with the way the plot suddenly starts turning, maybe the film should have been titled Scam, since from that moment on, nobody is being completely straight with anyone else.

This is one lean-and-mean movie. The celebrated Mamet dialogue is actually rather spare, as is the action, yet there's still plenty going on. The Swiss job turns out to be a daring daylight heist at an airport. (This film was supposed to be released a few weeks ago, but the studio decided that showing a robbery on a plane, even one that had no passengers, wouldn't be proper in the wake of all the terrorist events.) But due to all kinds of unforeseen circumstances, the job is on, then off, then on, etc. The script offers a plethora of switching and baiting as it appears that every character in on the job has his own agenda brewing. Whatever plans have been made -- and sticking to the plan had always been the reason for success in earlier capers -- this time not everyone is obeying them.

Meanwhile, it's never made exactly clear who is funding the whole operation, but it's painfully clear that they're people one doesn't want to mess with.

A real highlight of the film is the original soundtrack by Theodore Shapiro, a relative newcomer who also did Mamet's most recent film, State and Main. At different points, the music drives the action and heightens the suspense, and there's some extraordinary guitar work for your listening pleasure.

But, as always with a Mamet film, it's the actors doing what they do, in conjunction with the dialogue, that makes it all so cool. Ricky Jay (Boogie Nights, Magnolia and almost every Mamet-directed film so far) definitely gets all the best lines, but the team of Hackman and Pidgeon get the best scenes and make an amazing screen team. As both characters and actors, they're just about perfect together. He's sharp and hot-headed; she's tough and attractive (she knows it, and this leads to some intrigue).

When things finally start spinning rapidly out of control for these control freaks, the film takes a very dark turn. And an ongoing mystery element involving loyalty and allegiance keeps everyone guessing right up to the end. As viewers walk out of the theater, they'll likely split 50-50 as to whether it's a good ending or a bad one. And that's just one more thing that's so cool about this movie.

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