Why do I slave away in the cubicle five days a week? Why humiliate myself at the office alter when bags of cash are just begging to be snatched down at the corner bank? At least, that’s what movies have taught me. The joy of any heist film is how it entices its audience towards a life of crime. They’re a much-needed fantasy when you’re halfway through that Monday morning conference call and your mind wanders into the possibilities of John Dillinger. No G-Man can take away my dreams!
This Friday, Steven Soderbergh thankfully steps out of retirement for Logan Lucky. Happily labeled as a ‘Southern Ocean’s Eleven,’ here’s hoping that it offers enough devious cleverness to get you and me through our work week. Or maybe even more importantly, fingers crossed that it can stack up next to my other favorite lawless daydreams.
Below I rank my favorite movie heists. Joining up with any one of these bandits would probably be a bad idea, but maybe I could learn a thing or two from their ringleaders? Agree? Disagree? Hit me up, @MouthDork.
5. The Dark Knight (2008)
Execution. That’s the key. Find the man with the plan, follow every letter, and walk away with a bundle of cash. Although you should probably know what kind of man you’re following and trust he’s not going to put a bullet in your back. Christopher Nolan’s opening bank heist in The Dark Knight owes a lot to the professionalism on display in Michael Mann’s Heat (more on that later), but the craftsmanship of the heist easily captures the intelligence of The Joker’s threat while also highlighting the chaos he wishes to unleash upon Gotham City.
Watching The Dark Knight back to back with Batman Begins, it is kinda’ startling how the opening bank robbery immediately re-centers its audience in a reality apart from your average comic book blockbuster. The mechanics of the criminals appear light years apart from Ra’s al Ghul’s Bond-bad-guy scheme of citywide devastation. The Joker offers the audience, as well as the Gotham mob, a personal threat while the dispatching of his accomplices (and undoubtedly the acquired boodle) stresses his unbalanced nature. Some men just want to watch the world burn. Here is a heist as character development.
4. The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick’s third film is truly his coming out party as an all-time maestro/auteur. Taking the B-Movie plot of Lionel White’s spinner-rack novel, injecting the scumbag players with Jim Thompson’s hateful dialogue, and casting Sterling Hayden’s real-deal heavy as Johnny Clay establishes The Killing as top-tier cinema, a film that’s as hard-boiled as they come. Here is a collection of crooks who have no business entering a life of crime together, but somehow manage to execute a race track robbery with only a few slight (albeit catastrophic) hitches.
As is the case with all the movies on this list, the human factor is the one element that one can count on to foul it all up: Elisha Cook Jr. just can’t keep his mouth shut when his ball and chain continually assaults his manhood; Timothy Carey’s overly confident sharpshooter should have scoped out his position a little closer before setting up his shot; Sterling Hayden should have searched a little longer to find a suitcase secure enough to hold all his winnings. The Joker had the right idea in severing all ties with his crew – he probably hatched that nefarious concept while watching The Killing. He certainly stole his clown mask aesthetic from Kubrick.
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Once upon a time, Reservoir Dogs was known simply as that heist film without the heist. A movie more concerned with Madonna’s deep dicking than Mr. Blonde’s potential psychotic outbursts, Quentin Tarantino’s debut film is a gut punch of pop culture sampling. Packing every frame with his love for Hong Kong action, the impossibly cool speak of Elmore Leonard, and boob tube detective shows, Reservoir Dogs was my own gateway drug into a black hole universe of the impossibly cool. This film revealed to my thirteen-year-old self that cinema could still trap my attention without the aid of X-Wings or Nazi-punching archeologists. The heist is only as fun as the gangsters that populate it.
However, like the minions that joined The Joker and Johnny Clay’s posse in The Dark Knight and The Killing, Mr. White and company doubtlessly should have been more concerned with the vetting process of the crew instead of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s radio station. If you can’t decide on the tip at the diner, you have no business setting up a score of diamonds.
2. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
When cinefreaks champion the golden age of 70s cinema they’re talking about movies like Dog Day Afternoon. While Al Pacino’s Sonny doesn’t have a lick of sense about him or half the wit of the other Hollywood criminals on this list, he does have the necessary desperation to attempt this boneheaded caper. A man circling the drain of life, Sonny storms a bank with nothing but a rifle and a couple of friends because he needs the money for his lover’s gender affirming surgery. Unable to simply walk in and out with a bag of cash, the heist quickly descends into a nightmarish hostage situation in which Sonny enters the world of 15-minute celebrity while ignoring the cloud of doom looming above his head.
Dog Day Afternoon is heist movie as an act of compassion. As a master of empathy, Sydney Lumet puts the rifle in the audience’s hand. Sonny is a man that most would easily ignore in their day-to-day lives, but when he chants “Attica! Attica! Attica!” at the surrounding police you find a reason to chant alongside him. What does one tragedy have to do with the other? We’re all lost in this world.
1. Heat (1995)
Michael Mann’s Heat is a backyard game of cops and robbers stretched to its ultimate epic length. Here is a thesis statement on the professionalism of crime that began within the Tangerine Dream of 1981’s Thief, bank robber as plumber. Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley is the exact opposite of Al Pacino’s Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. Like the Joker, McCauley’s the man with the plan. Every aspect of the robbery planned out to the minuscule detail. Days upon days of research for an afternoon of gunplay and tax-free reward. The action centerpiece that spills out into the streets of Los Angeles is, frankly, enough to grant it access on any list of modern classics. Mann captures the reality of the moment in-camera by putting his actors through months of rigorous tactical training and trapping the sound of actual gunfire bouncing off the city’s concrete walls.
Half the thrill of any heist film is watching the criminals plot their endeavor. The other half is watching it all turn sideways. Michael Mann’s Heat is the ultimate endeavor in the particular brand of storytelling. Every element can be strategized except for the man sitting across from you. Al Pacino’s Lt. Hanna is as tenacious and obsessed as McCauley. Two junkyard dogs refusing to unclench their jaws, and someone’s jugular is going to burst first.
Related Topics: Action, Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh