David Mamet didn't stand a chance in Hollywood. His Samuel Beckett-influenced plays hacked back plot to an ominous implication, pared each nobody's thought to an elliptical repetitive essence and anguished common English. Take the rants in Obie-winner American Buffalo (1976) about a botched rare-coin heist: "What are we saying here? Loyalty. (Pause.) You know how I am on this. This is great. This is admirable…. This loyalty. This is swell…. All I mean, a guy can be too loyal, Don…. What are we saying here? Business…. Loyalty does not mean shit in a situation like this!"
Like his hero Theodore Dreiser, Mamet works out his characters' scummy scams in their own sweet time ("Midwestern legato," he calls it) and mutant demotic tongue. It was all wrong for movies: the half-comprehensible compression, the unadmirable characters, the habit of following words wherever they plotlessly led.
So movie men screwed him at first. They rewrote his scabrous 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago as 1986's simpering flick About Last Night. But scalawag director Bob Rafelson saw the pre-castrated play and hired him to write The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). Mamet abruptly got it: movies want plot and genre straitjackets. Postman hit big, then The Verdict (1982). Rewritten again on The Untouchables (1987), Mamet got even by satirizing Hollywood in Broadway's savage Speed-the-Plow (1988). (Increasingly rich, he skewered it with increasing affection in 1997's Wag the Dog and 2000's State and Main.) His directing debut, the card-sharp drama House of Games (1987), fused classic noir with his own brand of con. He got so much clout that his career capstone play, Glengarry Glen Ross, made it unscathed to film. The 1996 movie American Buffalo almost did too, weighed down by Dustin Hoffman's stagey ego, but with Mamet's words intact.
In plays, Mamet transmogrified straight-ahead Chicago slang into sentences that come at you like sidewinders. In movies, he managed to magic himself into a mainstream master. Look what he's pulled off lately: The Spanish Prisoner (1997), State and Main and Heist, his first big studio star vehicle and self-conscious genre pic. It's like three-card monte with two aces and a king.
We'll get to why Heist isn't quite aces in a minute, but first, here's why it's tasty. As heistmeister Joe Moore, Gene Hackman is Mamet's first hero who breathes air not previously exhaled by David Mamet. In the opening setup–Mamet's smoothest action scene yet–old pro Joe blows what should be his last job: a ritzy jewelry store.
At first (and fast), Joe's crew does everything right. Joe's sashaying wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) impersonates a waitress squirting Visine in her eyes, only she's pretending–it's knockout drops, squirted on the sly into four takeout coffees headed for the jewelry store. Joe's thug philosophes Bobby (Delroy Lindo) and Pinky (Ricky Jay) stage an explosion, don creepy translucent masks, down the store's door and deftly smash and grab. But Joe spots one coffee undrunk. He whips off his mask and assumes a face of compassionate rectitude, steps around the corner and instructs the sole unsedated clerk to call 911. She turns; he stun-guns her. Joe is a take-charge guy. So is Hackman. At last, Mamet's gang gets what it's always needed: a charismatic gang leader.
But the security camera spots Joe, and the cops' dopplering sirens won't give him time to grab the tape. He's "burned," identified. So the fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito, vigorous but too familiarly DeVitoid), refuses to pay the vulnerable Joe unless he does one last heist: get a Swiss gold shipment from a jet just before takeoff and take Bergman's fanged nebbish nephew (Sam Rockwell) along on the job.