Heist movies are ubiquitous and never go out of style because everyone can relate to that feeling of rooting for the antihero to stick it to the man — usually with a semi-automatic weapon and a crooked smile. Some of the most beloved movies are the ones where a crook pulls off the impossible.
A great heist movie usually comprises four things:
- Great characters
- An unsteal-able thing
- An unforeseen obstacle
- A great twist
We’re going to explore a few films that tackle this beloved genre, and these cardinal beats, albeit from different angles, with different prizes and with varying levels of success. Three — count ‘em 3 — of these star Morgan Freeman, who, with seven figure paydays, just can’t seem to walk away from that last big score.
Okay amateur safecrackers, let’s pull on our ski masks and dive in shall we?
1. The Code – a.k.a. Thick As Thieves
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“Some men were born to compose music, others to split the atom. I was born to steal shit.”
The Code opens big. A gutsy midday robbery, a near-impossible escape, and the scene is set for the partnership that would define the film. It’s an arranged marriage that doesn’t make sense right away, but doesn’t stop The Code from being a fun movie. There’s a place for a film where you don’t have to pay attention to every beat and can throw it on when you’re cooking dinner. The Code didn’t take home any golden statuettes, but it plays inside the heist sandbox and doesn’t take itself too seriously, so you don’t have to either.
Right off the bat, from almost minute one of The Code, Morgan Freeman’s Ripley lays down hard lines that Antonio Banderas’s Gaby absolutely cannot break. “If you sleep with [my adult goddaughter], I’ll tear your heart out, I mean it.”
But the explosive sexuality of Antonio Banderas will not be caged, baby! That same night, he beds the gorgeous Russian, played by Radha Mitchell. The next morning, he awakens to find Morgan Freeman standing over him in bed. A surprised Banderas is like “holy shit, weirdo! What are you doing over my bed, holding the clip for the gun I keep under my pillow?”
“Don’t do it again!” Morgan Freeman demands, but leaves Gaby’s heart untorn for the moment.
Faced with this new ultimatum, Gaby considers his options. The Russian, after all, had a lot of the same red flags you’d find in the SNL Kristen Wiig ‘Red Flag’ sketch, most notably that when she enters a Russian dance club, she grabs the chain-wearing bouncer behind the neck and pulls him into a kiss.
And her idea of attire is… I don’t even know the word for it. A front scarf halter with drapery cords to hold it in place?
Not that I’m complaining! Anyone with a back that beautiful should flaunt it.
But will The Banderas resist? Can he fight both the admonishment of his new partner and the devil-may-care enticement of the vanishing scarf halter?
Dios mio, no! The scorching, quasar-hot sexuality of mint-condition Antonio Banderas cannot be just arbitrarily reined in by someone’s gentle-speaking godfather! Boom!
In the bedroom.
With the pipe.
When the Russian is then captured and used as bait to force the men into a heist, Morgan Freeman is pissed.
“I told you to stay away from her!”
“But I am slicked-back-hair Antonio Banderas. The Banderas of legend, whose pheromones alone can impregnate a chicken from forty miles away. You can’t ask the sun not to shine, baby!” ← is what he should have said, but instead they just steal the unstealable thing.
Now, I’ll take the smoldering middle age hotness of Antonio Banderas in 2018’s Life Itself over the greased-back Antonio Banderas who didn’t have joint pain, but that’s just me. Despite its quirks and errors, I enjoyed the hell out of The Code, which was released in some places with the name Thick As Thieves.
(They were not, it bears mentioning, thick as thieves.)
The Code is a popcorn movie that you can poke fun at without missing a beat. The worst part about it is that young Tom Hardy is in it in an ancillary cop role…
…and it kills you to know the unused talent there. He had like three lines. Ugh! Still, The Code is cheesy enough to be fun, and there’s enough meat on the bone and enough plot twists to keep the story chugging along.
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For this heist movie we jump the ocean and a half century or so to London of the 1950s, where Demi Moore plays Laura Quinn, a female manager — notably the only female manager — in the infinite old boys’ club of a respected London diamond firm.
Moore’s Laura is a worker bee: the first to the office and last to leave every day. Though she’s well-liked and seemingly respected, she’s expected to work harder than anyone else just to maintain her position in a company that has passed her over for promotion six times. The costs to her personal life are notable. Merely to rise to her current position, ever so slightly below that glass ceiling, Laura has foregone marriage, family, and really love of any kind.
Then we meet her janitor, the unassuming Mr. Hobbs, played by Michael Caine. Hobbs has a plan. He knows Laura is about to be fired, and offers her a way out — partner with him to steal some diamonds from the vault. Juuuuust a few. Not enough so anyone notices.
Laura’s not so sure at first, but when she is able to find her own termination papers in the desk of her manager’s secretary, she knows that her days at the firm are numbered.
That’s when the proverbial game is afoot! Caine’s Mr. Hobbs pulls off a jaw-dropping heist that leaves everyone, including Laura, shocked. Piecing everything back together is the fun of Flawless.
The film opens with a terribly written character, a modern reporter named Cassie played by Natalie Dormer, who is an amalgam of everything Olds think Youngs are. On the phone, self important, rude, and daffy. The mechanism is intended to allow Demi’s Laura, now in an old lady mask, to tell the story herself. It’s a hamfisted device that nearly pulled me out of the film, despite the best efforts of Dormer, who is always fun to watch.
But once you’re ported back to the past, that’s when the fun begins.
I feel like we’ve seen this shade of performance before from Caine, but he’s always brilliant and a credit to any movie he’s in. He’s so good that we buy Michael Caine as an unnoticeable doof. If you know anything about Michael Caine, you know that he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and so it feels effortless for him to play blue collar, despite being film royalty. I love Michael Caine so much it’s borderline religious.
Thankfully, there’s no icky relationship between an old dude and a much much younger woman. Sometimes you review a film like this and you get a guy on geritol successfully wooing a college girl (or more often, chased by her) and despite being moderately uncomfortable to watch, it also can feel disingenuous and pull you out of the suspension of disbelief. I’m not saying that partners of all ages can’t find love when both parties are willing and of consenting age. In some cultures, marrying an older man is a sign of prestige. (If we were a more intelligent species, marrying an older woman would be!) I’m just saying that sometimes, it’s a malady of poor casting. And partners are wedged together to satisfy the plot even when the audience is like: that would never happen. Flawless steps daintily around the issue and has Caine and Moore as colleagues and partners, nothing more.
Flawless doesn’t always hit the mark in every scene, and until the heist it’s a bit like color by numbers. But once the caper happens, it’s divertingly good fun. Especially as you watch the characters unpeeling how it all went down.
3. The Score
Going into this movie, what I had heard most about it was the contentious relationship between director Frank Oz and Marlon Brando in what would be his final feature film role. Oz apparently tried to push Brando for a certain performance and the elder statesman of the celluloid blew up, making fun of Oz’s muppet roots and reportedly yelling “I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want.”
After that blowup, Brando refused to speak to Oz for the rest of the shoot, and any communication from then on had to run through Robert De Niro.
Sounds like a hell of a set.
Even considering that, The Score is, at the very least, a competent film. Unlike a movie like The Code, where it feels sort of fakey-fake or movie-real, The Score feels like a legit heist movie. The characters seem like professional thieves. They plan appropriately. They seem appropriately wary. They are excellent at the art of acquiring the goods of others.
De Niro plays Nick, a master thief with a specialty in safecracking who is looking for one last score. No, really this time, he tells his girlfriend, played by the captivating Angela Bassett.
You know I love to howl at the moon about wasted talent and maybe there hasn’t been a less worthy role in cinema than the role of ‘basically useless girlfriend’ for a titan like Angela Bassett. I weep to imagine her reading this script, highlighting her 15 lines or so and thinking “really?” Bassett’s character could have been played by anyone, in that her only function was a plot robot to deliver an ultimatum to De Niro’s safecracking Nick: quit or I’m gone.
Nick is approached by his longtime associate and table-setter, Max, played by Marlon Brando, who says he has one big job. A game changer. The big one. But in order to do it, Nick will have to break one of his foundational rules and steal in his own city of Montreal. But Max swears it’s legit. And he has an inside guy in the government facility where they’ll steal a priceless French artifact.
That inside guy is Jack, played by Ed Norton. If you’re an Ed Norton fan, well, you’re in for a treat because his acting chops are in full effect in this movie. His cover is playing an intellectually disabled night janitor in the most impregnable facility in Canada. By day, he’s scheming, looking for a safecracker good enough to partner with. By night, he’s waxing floors and spraying windows. If you’re not a fan of Ed Norton, his voice and mannerisms are going to feel like nails on a chalkboard in this one, but you still won’t be able to deny his skill.
From the beginning, Nick is like hell no. Too risky, too dangerous. He doesn’t trust Jack. Jack doesn’t trust him. De Niro’s Nick is somewhere on the spectrum with his character Neil McCauley from Heat and Jack Walsh from Midnight Run, which is to say that trust comes hard for the man.
But the effete Max is able to convince Nick to do it. One final score. That old chestnut.
From there, the film takes off. There are some great twists and moments of high tension but ultimately it may not be the highest praise that my most memorable takeaway from the film was “wow, Montreal is gorgeous. I want to live there.” Kind of a bummer, considering it would be the last time we’d get to see Brando on the big screen.
Still, this is a professional film. Seeds are planted, beats are hit. Everything is not what you think it is, which validates the mistrust between the two thieves and frames the story for a very satisfying ending.
4. The Maiden Heist
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“The Lonely Maiden is marked by the subtle use of tone and mood to create a striking image of desperate longing and overwhelming passion.”
We’ve explored a few different brands of heist, but none that are like The Maiden Heist.
The story here is entirely different. Three Boston-based museum security guards, all a little sensitive, are in love with three different works of art at a museum where they work. One day they find out that the collection has been sold to a museum in Denmark, and they decide that they must do whatever it takes to save their beloved pieces from this fate. It’s a life and death thing for them, and they feel compelled to act.
In less evolved times, these three men might be derided and derogatorily labeled “betas” for their kind and diminutive personas. They aren’t aggressive. They’re sort of afraid of their own shadows. Frankly, I found it refreshing to watch a heist film without all that typical male braggadocio.
Oscar winner Christopher Walken’s Roger is terrified of his lovely and thoughtful wife, played by Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden.
Oscar winner Morgan Freeman’s Charlie is a gentle soul who lives alone with numerous cats he names after favorite artists.
Oscar nominee William H. Macy is George, an anxious, neurotic ex-marine who once helped liberate Grenada.
Together they form an unlikely team, unified in the mission of, well… preventing others from having the art they’re obsessed with.
It’s a delightful film that unfortunately seems to have had a very unsatisfactory life. This is why it’s so hard to make the 20 million dollar art film these days, and when you Google it, The Maiden Heist reads like a cautionary tale. Plagued with money issues, the film feels like it runs out of cash at the end. Word on the street is that they put all the money they had into production, leaving it with no marketing budget and no potential partners to distribute the film, which was compounded by the fact that the production company that bankrolled it went bankrupt. I don’t think this little film ever had even a limited domestic release, which is a damn shame.
This is not the testosterone firestorm that many heist flicks aim to be. This is a smaller movie, more intimate and thoughtful. If only it had a good punch up writer to take the air out of some of the jokes, they really could have had something here. Ultimately, this is a movie you can watch with your grandparents or your kids (if you don’t mind them seeing William H. Macy’s naked derriere). For those of us who long for the return of the mid-level arthouse film, this is at least a small gem that can tide us over.
5. The Saint
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Simon Templar, international master of disguise! A brilliant, cultured, genius who can seem to disappear into thin air! But who is “The Saint?” People often lump him in with 007 because they both occupy that same general space of international man of mystery. So here’s a simple cheat sheet:
For those of you not familiar with The Saint, it’s the story of an orphan with what appears to be undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder, who is mistreated by the monks in the orphanage where he’s raised. Stripping the orphans of their given monikers, the clergy rename all the children after famous saints.
But the young Templar isn’t so keen on the bullshit name the monks give him, and instead names himself after Simon, a magician, and Templar, from the sect of famous knights. He then grows up to become a dude who can rock any disguise from a crazy-ass stache to a bald-cap to a Yanni wig. Some of his teeth prosthetics are naaaasty. He can do, in seconds, the kind of quick change appearance alteration that takes modern makeup departments hours to accomplish.
And for every new ‘character’ he takes the name of a different saint, which informs his performance and his goal with that particular persona.
The Saint felt much more fun to me in my 20s than it did this time. Maybe it’s because a primary expositional tool of the script is Templar talking aloud to himself. Maybe it’s because I loved Roger Moore as The Saint and I only like Val Kilmer as The Saint. Why didn’t someone as talented and impressive as Val Kilmer ever become Tom Cruise? I can’t remember a performance before The Saint that I didn’t 100% love Val Kilmer in. Look at this list! This is all prior to 1997:
- Nick Rivers in Top Secret!
- Chris Knight in Real Genius
- Iceman in Top Gun
- Madmartigan in Willow
- Jim Morrison in The Doors
- Uncredited Elvis in True Romance
- Doc Holliday in Tombstone
- Batman in Batman Forever
- Chris Shiherlis in Heat
I mean, holy shit. That’s a run, man. Damn! He was Batman, and not even the Batman that everyone hates! (Looking at you, George Clooney.)
These are the roles that led up to Val being cast as Simon Templar in The Saint. And I didn’t even mention Thunderheart.
And then… what happened? His career changed a bit after The Saint. He was always dogged by the whisper around town that he was a challenge to deal with. By his own admission he was a jerk to Tom Cruise on the Top Gun set. Maybe after The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Saint he got a rep that he couldn’t open a picture anymore, and maybe producers just didn’t want the hassle. He didn’t really feel like vintage Val Kilmer again until Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in 2005.
That said, The Saint is still fun. Kilmer, while tonally feeling a wee bit off as a heartless seducer, is still pure talent. And Elisabeth Shue? What is it about Elisabeth Shue? I love her in everything, going back to Adventures in Babysitting. I’m not sure her performance in The Saint is anything to write home about, but it’s still somehow very magnetic. I feel about her the way Christopher Walken feels about the Maiden painting in The Maiden Heist: she somehow just glows.
Choices are made in The Saint that don’t quiiiiiite work, and even though it’s fun, it leaves you with the feeling of what might have been. How is it that Bond has 26 films and Simon Templar only has one? Maybe it’s the gadgets. Maybe the technophilial, contact tracing, facial-recognition world of today isn’t the ideal playground for a master of disguise. But oh, if it could be! Who might be the Simon Templar of today if we were to crack that egg again?
6. Hard Rain
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Sheriff: You took the money. Didn’t you son?
Tom: Yeah, I hid it in the cemetery.
Wayne Bryce: Why you do that?
Tom: I don’t like to carry around that much cash, ya know?”
Now we get to our final movie, which stars…let me see here…carry the one…Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman as just a random thief who is going to knock off an armored truck, which is driven by Ed Asner and Christian Slater.
Hard Rain has so much. So much. Freeman and Slater. Minnie Driver. Betty White. Randy Quaid. Ed Asner.
You have Mark Rolston, the head of the Sisters in Shawshank Redemption and you have a bearded Richard Dysart who was the big boss on L.A. Law. You have director Mikael Salomon, no slouch, who directed episodes of acclaimed series Rome and Band of Brothers, and you have writer Graham Yost, who wrote Speed and created excellent TV series like Justified and Boomtown.
There’s a lot of talent on the board, here.
But it doesn’t matter. Hard Rain is an absolute disaster. I think I was poking fun at the movie within like the first three minutes. I can’t remember watching a less believable film. My better half was working on her laptop on the sofa next to me and even she was hurling shade at it, which is a rare event. When movies go off the rails, they go hard, and Hard Rain is, in a word, turrible.
The premise is that a team of bad guys, run by Freeman, is going to knock over an armored truck. But there’s a flood warning on, a biblical flood, by the way, and the town has been evacuated. An armored car has been dispatched to clean out the banks in the flood zone because, y’know, you can’t use money if it gets wet. Duh. Everyone knows that. (Ostensibly, the conceit is that the banks will be in a lawless land where looters could try to pierce the vaults and acquire the greenbacks, but can they do that in this kind of weather?)
And that’s pretty much the idea. The armored truck gets stuck in a big ass puddle, can’t move, and the hyenas swoop in. Boy scout Christian Slater hides the money from Morgan Freeman and then it’s a game of capture the flag as Freeman hunts Slater and some local cops jump in to restore order.
Hard Rain will go down in history as an ambitious attempt that just couldn’t deliver. I’m sorry to say it, but there isn’t an honest beat in it. There are some high quality special effects, some near-death sphincter-tightening moments and a cool jet ski chase through a flooded middle school, but that’s about it. The only thing truly impressive about this film is that they made it, that no one got electrocuted, and that the actors fulfilled their contracts and didn’t say the hell with this and quit after like day three.
So why bother to mention it? It’s so bad I kind of want you to experience it for yourselves. There are quippy one liners that are so awful and poorly timed that you’ll want to cover your ears. There’s one particular performance from an ancillary actor that is so bad, so thoroughly, shockingly terrible, that it destroys every scene the actor is in. I won’t say who. You’ll have to watch it and see. That’s where you have to step in as a director and go: this person is killing my film and replace them right away. But I’m assuming they couldn’t because no other actor would sign on to be that wet for that long for scale.
How does it end? Who cares! I mean, the ending is piss, too, but by the time you get there you’ll have fallen in love with this miserable chronicle of insanity. You’ll have a new appreciation for crews and lighting and how hard it is to pick the right project. You’ll feel like you’ve been cleansed, metaphorically, by the struggle of the wet actors, and you’ll marvel at how bad a movie can be when it makes Betty White irritating. It’s a feat that I never thought possible. Betty White is a national treasure.
Hard Rain. A travesty. Watch it now, on Plex.
And that’s a list of some of the great heist movies available now. Jump with both feet into the comments section and let us know what you thought of them! Thanks for being a part of the Plex family, and as always, thanks for reading!