Thievery thrives in run of heist movies

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

TORONTO -- The venerable heist flick, whose roots stretch back to the earliest days of film, is having a banner year.

Everyone from cheerleaders to Elvis impersonators to hypnotized insurance-agency workers are having a go at robbing from the rich to give to themselves.

What's the fascination with watching characters break the law?

"Pauline Kael, rest in peace, said it: 'Kiss kiss, bang bang.' We sit in the dark with our friends to have our forbidden pleasures," said David Mamet, who premiered his caper "Heist" at last week's Toronto International Film Festival. Gene Hackman stars as leader of a team that pulls off a bold runway robbery of a plane's gold cargo.

"Every society's got to have a safety valve," Mamet said. "Instead of getting drunk and gnashing our flesh and feeding our children to the sun god, we go to the movies."

One of the earliest narrative films was a heist flick, the silent short "The Great Train Robbery," made by Edwin S. Porter in 1903. Hollywood has followed with an endless line of heist films, from "White Heat" to "Dog Day Afternoon" to "Reservoir Dogs."

"There's always been this fascination with the criminal mind," said John Travolta, who starred as a mastermind stealing billions from a government fund in this summer's "Swordfish." "Either you understand it and identify with it or you don't understand and don't identify with it; but somehow, either way it's fascinating."

So far this year, Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell led a band of Elvis-clad thieves that pulls a casino robbery in "3000 Miles to Graceland"; the Jesse James gang rode again in "American Outlaws"; and Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton lifted a priceless scepter in "The Score."

Also, thieves did daring robberies in the British heist films "Snatch" and "Sexy Beast"; a squad of cheerleaders hit a bank in "Sugar & Spice"; Martin Lawrence was a plucky house burglar in "What's the Worst That Could Happen?"; and Woody Allen and Helen Hunt received post-hypnotic suggestions to steal jewels in "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion."

More to come

Still to come is Steven Soderbergh's remake of the casino-robbery caper "Ocean's Eleven"; "High Heels and Low Lives," a comedy about bored housewives trying to extort loot from bank robbers; and "Bandits," another comedy with Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton as escaped cons on a robbery spree.

"I think in terms of criminals or people who steal, there are bad people who aren't out to hurt anybody," Thornton said. "Everybody identifies with that because everybody wants to get away with something that makes their life easier. When you see people in movies who do it and get away with it and haven't hurt anybody, that seems OK."

It also depends on whose loot is being stolen. Audiences will be more sympathetic to a thief going after a wealthy victim.

"In many instances, a script can make the person human because of the people he's stealing from," Hackman said. "He's not stealing from the poor. He's stealing from the rich. There's a lot of larceny in everyone, and you can get on the character's side if you do it in those terms."

'It's like rock stars'

Americans have a long history of idolizing bad guys, from western outlaws to Prohibition gangsters to modern mobsters.

"There's a rebel in all of us and a fascination with people who, let's face it, break the rules," said Piers Handling, Toronto festival director. "It's like rock stars. It's always great to see people who can live outside the rules."

Brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who directed the heist flick "Dead Presidents," said heroes in movies often can be upstaged by villains.

"A lot of people don't want to admit it, but the bad guy's a more interesting role," Albert Hughes said.

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