What’s Wrong with Heist Movies?

I wrote this quite a few years ago after watching a whole lot of Heist movies. I have republished it here because the original blog I posted it on was lost in a website upgrade.

Heist movies generally have the perfect structure for building to a narrative climax. They usually start out with a small but exciting heist that introduces the characters and then the second act of the movie usually builds up to the major heist at the end. Basically, they engage you straight away and keep your interest until the finale. As far as I can see, there is nothing wrong with this structure, it is a perfect way to grab interest, introduce characters and then build suspense for an exciting conclusion. The problem I generally have with this, is the circumstances in many films, that lead to the conclusion. The major problem is in the use of computers.

Probably the worst offenders are the Ocean’s movies, Entrapment and especially the remake of The Italian Job. Computers and the Internet are now so common that it is hard to avoid them appearing in any movie set in either the present or future. We obviously use them a lot, as I used one to write this and anyone reading is using some sort of computer too. So they cannot be said to be out of place in a heist movie but the way they are often used can. A good heist movie is exciting but a great heist movie is exciting and plausible. Computers, more often than not, are used at a major point in the movie, that makes the whole thing implausible. This is a huge problem because the possibility of daring success in difficult but real circumstances is what makes the movies so cool.

The most interesting, if not exciting sections in a good heist movie, are observing the characters plan the heist. These are usually used to build the plausibility along with allowing the audience to understand the motivations of the characters. We watch the characters practice removing windows, planning escape routes, buying supplies and testing explosives or corrosive chemicals ready for walls, safes and locks. While the average person may not be able to easily make or get those hands on these things, the fact that they are real and possible to obtain makes it believable.

So after seeing all of this planning and networking done, along with a few small complications, along comes one big one. This big one is usually and alarm or some sort of security system. The solution is often in the use of a computer and this is usually the point when you start to disbelieve. Depending on how much an audience member knows about computers is how far their incredulity sinks. The laymen computer user for example knows that it is highly unlikely that infrastructure systems are so thoroughly networked as to make hacking into them with a PC possible. The audience also knows that if infrastructure was so linked, that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to gain access to. The more computer literate person might know of a few organisations or systems where it may possible to gain access but would probably point out that it is not easy. And certainly not done with all the cool graphics, showing uploading, hacking and the rapid opening and closing of different programs and windows, without a mouse in sight.

So the use of computers immediately disconnects the whole heist with reality. This doesn’t have to be the case. If the narrative or dialogue were used more sensibly, it might be possible to structure it so that the use of the computer can be seen to be possible but this is rarely done. At best the computers are used for minor problems and at worst, they are a lazy deus ex machina.

I love the movie Swordfish and the entire plot is based around the use of a computer worm virus, but given that the movie at no time, ever goes for anything that could be called reality, it is easy to overlook. The problem is with otherwise very clever movies such as The Score. I recall enjoying the opening scene of The Score, a whole lot more than the rest of the movie because it was tense and very real. One man dressed in black breaking into a safe in a darkened room while a dinner party goes on in the next room. The problem is not the safe, we can believe that with enough time and a bit of knowledge, someone can get into a safe. The excitement comes completely from the time it takes to get into the safe and the chance of someone entering the room. The suspense is therefore built through time and chance.

The Score essentially follows the structure I described above but the constant lingering worry for the main character is that as someone who works alone, he is forced to work for someone else in the most crucial heist in his life. This along with the normal chance of getting caught or betrayed, is all the movie needed to maintain the suspense and it depreciated itself a lot by including a throwaway and unexplained bit of system hacking during the heist.

The original Italian Job was a very light-hearted heist movie, but it was immensely enjoyable because of the grandness of the plan. At all times we could see how they were pulling it off. It always appeared risky but always possible as long as nothing went too wrong. The remake/imagining remains fairly light hearted but throws any believability away instantly. The most believable part of the whole heist is watching Jason Statham successfully seducing a woman to get her work shirt. Oh, and when they disable the cable TV by cutting the cable. The rest of the movie involves using computers to hack traffic lights, security systems and while entertaining, throws any sense of reality straight into the recycle bin.

Another minor problem with heist movies that I feel like mentioning relate a little bit to my problem with computers. It comes at certain points when the characters come to a problem where they pull out an item or a tool that they were never seen with before and begin using it.

It isn’t just movies that do this. What compelled me to write this was the constant use of lazy script writing in Prison Break. It is quite obvious that the show allows a bit of elasticity in the plot to allow for changes that come in responding to the audience as a series progresses. However, the way the first season progressed, the prison escape went from cleverly planned genius to complete luck, although the climax was admittedly satisfying.

If a computer can’t be included realistically into a film then I really don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see a deus ex machina in any form of fiction, but especially not in genres that have a lot of appeal in their believability.

With all this said, two heist movies that come highly recommended are:

  • The First Great Train Robbery directed by the late, great Michael Crichton and starring Sean Connery.
  • The aptly titled, Heist directed by David Mamet and starring Gene Hackman.
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