Introduction: When news broke that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was cast to play the nefarious Negan on AMC’s The Walking Dead, I knew I wanted to check out some of his filmography. Being unfamiliar with Morgan in terms of his acting resume, I searched some of his movies on iTunes and watched a few that sounded the most interesting to me. My attention landed first on this film, which turned out to be a limited release/video on demand. While it seemed to suffer from poor reviews, I have a habit of ignoring what critics say and delving into a movie with a blank mental slate. So is Heist truly a flop or an under-the-radar caper flick? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Heist (2015) introduces us to the gambling empire of Francis “Pope” Silva (Robert De Niro), who owns a riverboat casino called The Swan. But after years of being in the business and now contending with encroaching health problems, Pope calls it quits. Before he bows out for good, one of his workers, Luke Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), seeks a big monetary favor. Vaughn’s young, cancer-stricken daughter needs a life-saving operation; however, he is behind on payments – $300,000 behind, to be exact – and the hospital refuses to continue treatment unless or until Vaughn pays. When his request for the money from Pope is vehemently denied, Vaughn decides to take up a fellow casino employee, Cox (Dave Bautista), on his idea to rob Pope blind. The heist initially goes according to plan but things quickly turn violent and Vaughn and his co-conspirators are forced to hijack a commuter bus. While Cox insists on running things his way, Vaughn knows he is losing time to save his daughter and will stop at nothing to ensure she gets the treatment she deserves – even if it means pulling a sleight of hand of his own.
My Take: I’m honestly not sure why critics seemed to pan this movie though I can see some of the allusions to Speed here (but I confess I’ve never seen Speed so my comparisons end right there). Granted, even though it’s called Heist, which certainly implies that it’s going to be a true-blooded caper film such as the Oceans 11 films or even The Italian Job remake, it quickly transforms into something less grandiose, which in this case is actually not a bad thing. Heist films collectively are a bit like time travel stories for me – they are a unique genre that hold to certain conventions yet have to possess something distinctive to set them apart lest they all appear alike to me. By way of example, this is why the Oceans 11 films and even the former TNT drama series Leverage worked so well for me – they took a tried-and-true formulaic skeleton and fashioned it with distinctive elements so they stood apart from the rest of the heist genre crowd. In the case of the Oceans 11 franchise, its films sported a grand scope populated by a fun cast, filled with clever capers, and marked by slick comedic timing. In Leverage‘s favor, it’s stories eventually drifted away from focusing exclusively on the elaborate Robin Hood-esque capers and offered up more on the thieves’ personal lives. Thus, these two heist narratives bear hallmarks of their principle genre but stand out among the crowd by possessing unique fingerprints of their own.
Heist stands out among its peers, too, but in a quieter way, which might be what critics are missing. No, the thieves don’t try to rip off multiple casinos in a single night. No, there are no elaborate infiltration or disguise plans. No, the thieves are not entirely in agreement over the ultimate aim of the scheme. But all of this works in Heist‘s favor rather than against it; thus, it becomes more akin to Leverage where it spends time on the characters’ personal lives than on elaborate bait-and-switch ploys. What starts out as a run-of-the-mill casino heist plot turns into a subdued suspense narrative that explores the lengths a father will go to save his daughter’s life but never once passes judgment regarding whether Vaughn’s ends justify the means. In a way, the scale and scope of this movie reminded me of film adaptations of stage plays (though this is not) where the action is concentrated in limited or confined spaces so the focus is on characters interacting and dialoguing with one another. As a result, while there might not be a constant change in scenery or dynamic, there is a good foundation for character growth.
The standout performances here come from Robert De Niro, as the casino owner, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as the conflicted family man. I confess I haven’t caught many of De Niro’s newer movies, not that I feel he is waning in relevance because De Niro has been and always will be one of my favorite actors. He just hasn’t been in anything I’ve been dying to see and I worry that his edge, garnered from playing in gritty films such as Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Heat, is being diminished. However, I’m happy to see De Niro in his element here as a bad guy who isn’t 100% pure evil, a role De Niro is good at playing. Yes, Pope is the main antagonist and, yes, he’s definitely into some shady business, but there emerges an element in his story that causes you to sympathize with him. While I won’t reveal too much because it will spoil the story, I will say that I was genuinely surprised and pleased with his character’s evolution, and though Pope doesn’t entirely turn over a proverbial new leaf, he does make choices that result in some enjoyable plot twists.
Certainly not to be ignored here is Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who injects a good deal of heart and courage into Vaughn’s character. While his composure during some of the film’s most intense moments has caused some critics to assert that this is due to a lack of connection to the story, I strongly disagree. So as not to spoil anything, I have to keep mum about some details, but I will say that the movie presents a good twist that might explain why Vaughn keeps his cool. This was my first exposure to Morgan as an actor and I happily admit I was impressed. He genuinely makes Vaughn’s dilemma look real and his gentler emotions are perfectly balanced with a determined spirit that isn’t afraid to look death in the eye (sometimes literally). He’s a smart character who knows how to roll with the punches and he’s easy to root for because of this.
Furthermore, Vaughn’s function as an antihero allows for a broader interpretation of the movie’s final moments as opposed to a spoon-fed morality tale where everything is painted as either black or white, bad or good. Heist dabbles in grey areas and it’s Vaughn who is forced to make tough choices while contending with the consequences of his decisions and actions. For instance, he agrees to rob Pope but it’s to use the money to benefit his daughter, not to make himself rich. He holds up the bus and, by proxy, takes hostages; but he does his best to protect the people from Cox’s rampages and even tries to connect with the hostages as individuals, not as pawns in the grand scheme of things. He has to break the law but makes sure to not make enemies with the police in order to ensure that as many people as possible get out of the situation alive. These moments, as well as others, enable the audience to draw its own conclusion regarding Vaughn’s actions each step of the way. Never once are we forced to judge him based on what he does – for good, bad, or all points in between. Instead, Vaughn is clearly an antihero with whom it’s easy to relate as well as wonder what we might do if we were in his position. While overall this makes for rather subdued fare, it certainly works and enables Heist to stand out among its usually louder, flashier heist film peers.
Content Breakdown: Heist was given an R rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – While harsher profanities are used, particularly in the film’s more perilous moments (especially the f-word, its variants, and the sh-word), their usage isn’t pervasive.
Violence – There are scenes of gun-related violence that show victims being shot with minimal blood splatter but, for the most part, such scenes avoid excessive gore and aren’t frequent. Also, while the film’s tension feeds from extended scenes of peril where the bus’ hostages live in fear of their lives, these scenes are more suspenseful as opposed to being horrific or scary. Elsewhere, Pope’s hired assassin tortures and kills some characters but doesn’t engage in graphic torture though some of his killings are depicted on screen. Lastly, one character’s bloody gunshot wound is visible as someone tends to him but it isn’t lingered on for very long.
Sexual Material – Essentially none. There are a few crude remarks but nothing pervasive or graphic. Elsewhere, Pope is shown in bed with a naked woman who is lying on her side, which obscures any sensitive areas, but nothing sexual occurs as they talk and share an e-cigarette.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Heist stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. This film is solidly an R due to its language and scenes of peril and violence, so it is too intense for children.
Older Children & Teens – I think if there is an edited version that would be fine, though most older children and teens, I would venture to guess, won’t be attracted to this movie due to its overall story.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons who enjoy heist films that don’t skimp on the suspense and that possess a genuinely likable and intelligent antiheroic protagonist but avoid large, loud action set pieces.
Heist is a movie I’d advise viewers to watch first and skip the reviews. Just because it’s not a typical heist story, and is rather small in scale and scope, doesn’t make it a poorly-made caper movie. While this is sure to be an under-the-radar release, it’s by no means a must-miss. De Niro is in form here and Morgan offers a strong, emotional performance that avoids becoming canned or cheesy. Overall, Heist is a quieter action/suspense pick but certainly enjoyable for fans of the heist genre who want more than fancy con games or over-the-top action set pieces.