Friday, November 13, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: HEIST (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Scott Mann. Written by Stephen Cyrus Sepher and Max S. Adams. Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Robert De Niro, Kate Bosworth, Dave Bautista, Morris Chestnut, Gina Carano, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, D.B. Sweeney, Lydia Hull, Tyler J. Olson, Summer Altice, Rosie Fellner, Lance E. Nichols, Stephen Cyrus Sepher, Tyson Sullivan, Han Soto. (R, 92 mins)

Let's be clear: HEIST is an absolutely idiotic thriller that hopes you'll fill in the blanks as it glosses over important details in between incongruous bouts of maudlin heartstring-tugging on its way to one of 2015's most asinine third-act plot twists. It's the rare violent, foul-mouthed, hard-R film with a schmaltzy sentimental streak. It's silly and dumb, but it has some good lines and a strange assembling of actors that range from an A-list Oscar-winner to the regulars at your local Redbox. Ten years ago, the $22 million HEIST would've opened nationwide in theaters and probably been the top movie for at least a couple of weeks (it also would've been confused for the 2001 David Mamet film with the same title), but today, it's being rolled out on VOD and a few scattered theaters. Director Scott Mann (whose 2009 film THE TOURNAMENT was a fun DTV actioner) and screenwriters Stephen Cyrus Sepher and Max S. Adams have created the unlikely offspring of OCEAN'S ELEVEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SPEED, and THE GAUNTLET with this casino heist-turned-hostages-on-a-bus thriller that entertains in spite of its rampant stupidity. What can I say?  Check your brain at the door and roll with it, and you'll probably like it. It's always dopey but it's never boring. Sometimes you just need a movie like this.

Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a blackjack dealer at the Swan Riverboat Casino, owned by a powerful crime figure known as The Pope (Robert De Niro, on the heels of his RED LIGHTS, FREELANCERS, KILLING SEASON and THE BAG MAN triumphs). Vaughn's daughter suffers from a rare illness and needs an expensive surgery that insurance won't cover, so he asks The Pope for a $300,000 loan. Vaughn and The Pope go back many years: Vaughn used to be the boss' strongarm until he met a good woman who steered him away from crime, prompting him to step back and just work as a table dealer instead (?!). Still hurting from the rejection, The Pope rejects Vaughn's request and has his replacement flunky, trigger-happy, raging psycho Derek (Morris Chestnut) throw him out. Casino security officer Cox (Dave Bautista) then lures Vaughn into a hastily-drawn plot to rob the Swan's vault of $3 million that gets laundered through the casino once a week by some of The Pope's Chinese Triad partners. Desperate to get the money for his daughter and pissed off at The Pope, Vaughn agrees but of course, the heist goes south when Derek and some goons pursue them through the casino as the fleeing thieves hijack a city bus that's surprisingly full for 4:00 am. With a busload of hostages and the police--headed by Bajos (Gina Carano) and corrupt Marconi (Mark-Paul Gosselaar)--in hot pursuit, it's a race against time for Vaughn to get the money to the hospital while dealing with the volatile Cox (who just wants to kill all the passengers), Derek (who just wants to impress his boss), and The Pope (who just wants to make sure $3 million of Triad money doesn't go missing).

Oh, the absurdity! Of course, the hostages recognize Vaughn as a weary, bad-luck guy with a heart of gold, so they're quickly on his side. And the filmmakers aren't the most subtle foreshadowers in the way they have The Pope announce his retirement from the casino business, immediately followed by the introduction of a nagging cough as he desperately tries to phone his estranged daughter (third-billed Kate Bosworth has one scene) to set things right. This draws an obvious parallel where The Pope, a rigid, ruthless hardass, identifies with Vaughn's desperation to do whatever he needs to do to save his daughter, even if it means stealing from the most powerful criminal he knows. The underrated Morgan is a constantly busy actor who turns up all over the place and it's surprising that he isn't a bigger star. He makes Vaughn an engaging enough hero that you root for him even though you know there's no way he won't win. Carano gets one fight scene with Bautista, but she basically exists to say "Copy that" to Marconi's orders and to be a sympathetic accomplice to Vaughn. The characters are mostly stock and predictable, like the requisite pregnant woman on the bus who's one pothole away from her water spontaneously breaking, but oddball elements like a runaway little kid, a hipster in a beaver costime, and an Asian guy who unsuccessfully pretends he doesn't understand English, all of whom, again, somehow find themselves on a packed bus at 4:00 am (prior to the hijacking of the bus, does no one--starting with the driver played by D.B. Sweeney--question why a five-year-old boy is on a bus alone at 4:00 am?), indicate that there's an even goofier film trying to break out.

De Niro, in what must be an homage to the VOD accomplishments of John Cusack, is introduced vaping and bitching about how e-cigarettes just lack the feeling of real smokes. He's not in HEIST a lot but he's in it enough to keep himself amused (try to picture how Bruce Willis would sleepwalk through the same role; De Niro at least leaves his desk), sort of like his gangster character from THE BAG MAN but minus the silly wig and a propensity for long-winded monologues about FULL HOUSE. Pulling out all the beloved De Niro moves in his arsenal, he could've played The Pope in his sleep but actually seems to be having fun with it when he isn't forced to shout banalities like "Get me my money back!" and "Where's the money?!" and using cliched gambling verbiage when he's on the phone with Vaughn ("You need to fold your hand and walk away from the table or I'm takin' your whole stack!"). When Derek tells The Pope that Vaughn got away with $3 million, De Niro's delivery of the line, "Hold on...now, maybe I had a stroke or something on my way over here, but..." while making a classic De Niro face is expertly-timed and laugh-out-loud funny. HEIST's big twist opens a gaping plot hole, but overall, the film is a fast-paced and diverting time-killer and will probably be a hugely popular Netflix stream in a couple of months. HEIST can't possibly be taken seriously, so if it embraced the sense of lunacy it occasionally hints at and gone a little more in that offbeat and potentially over-the-top direction, it might've made a bigger impression. Instead, it flirts with those ideas on its way to being something as predictable and generic as its title suggests. Still, there's a lot worse things in theaters right now.

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