Bank Vaults & Bullion: Nate’s Top Ten Heist Films

Why are Heist flicks so much fun? Is it the brotherly camaraderie between a pack of thieves out to pull a job? The elaborate ruses and ditch efforts employed to deceive and elude authorities? Gunfights n’ car chases? Safe cracking? Priceless art? For me it’s all of the above and more, this is a rip roaring sub genre ripe with possibilities, packed with twist laden narratives and filled with pure escapism at every turn. Here are my top ten personal favourites!

10. Mimi Leder’s The Code aka Thick As Thieves

This is admittedly kind of a middle of the road, not so amazing film but I really dig it anyways. So basically a veteran jewel thief (Morgan Freeman) hires a skilled rookie (Antonio Banderas) to pull off an apparently impossible diamond heist in order to pay back a dangerous Russian mobster (Rade Servedzija) he owes for another job. Meanwhile an obsessed detective (Robert Forster) watches their every move and waits to pounce while a slinky mystery woman (Radha Mitchell) gets in the way and manipulates everyone. It’s low key and nothing super groundbreaking but as passable entertainment with a terrific cast and some genuinely clever twists it does the job. Oh and a young Tom Hardy shows up too, which is a nice bonus.

9. Spike Lee’s Inside Man

My favourite Spike Lee joint sees super thief Clive Owen break into a high profile NYC bank and streetwise cop Denzel Washington try to figure out what he’s after, a task that doesn’t prove so easy. This is a whip smart, caffeinated and oh so slightly self aware crime thriller that is so watchable even the actors seem to have a small smirk just getting to be a part of it. The narrative does some delicious roper dopes, pinwheels and double turns and by the end of it you’ll find yourself thinking back to the start just to see how it all ended up the way it does.

8. Scott Frank’s The Lookout

Psychological drama combines deftly with criminal intrigue in this tale of a brain damaged ex hockey player (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who gets roped into a rural bank robbery. This is a dark, idiosyncratic story with vivid performances from all including Matthew Goode as the guy who organizes the job and Jeff Daniels as Levitt’s blind roommate.

7. Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast

Ben Kingsley basically grabs this film from the get go and tears it to shreds with a mad dog performance, but in and around his shenanigans is a brilliant London set narrative that sees retired expert Gal (Ray Winstone) jetting back for one last job. With a sharp, acidic script, jet black humour and eccentric performances across the board, this becomes a terrific heist film with a dash of many other things sprinkled in.

6. Jonathan Sobol’s The Art Of The Steal

This one flew right under the radar despite a fresh, funny story and a stacked cast. Ex art thief turned motorcycle daredevil Kurt Russell is lured out of semi retirement by his terminally untrustworthy brother (Matt Dillon) to steal a priceless work along with a highly dysfunctional crew of would be professionals. The story is brilliantly told and leaves plenty of room for actors to improvise and inject their own personality. This deserved way more acclaim that it got and I’ve always wondered why such a slick flick with Kurt Russell in the lead never even got a theatrical release. You also get the legendary Terence Stamp stealing scenes as the world’s grumpiest art thievery guru turned federal informant too.

5. Michael Mann’s Thief

Rain slicked streets, restless urban nocturnes and expert thieves taking down big scores. Mann first distilled his crime aesthetic here in the tale of one master thief (James Caan) looking for one last big job that will allow him to retire with his wife (Tuesday Weld) and kid. Featuring vivid performances from Willie Nelson, Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina and Robert Prosky, a gorgeous synth score by Tangerine Dream and visuals that dazzle with colour, shiny steel and iridescent nightscapes, this a crime classic that set the bar for many to come after.

4. John Frankenheimer’s Ronin

This film is a lot of things; car chase flick, Cold War spy game, battlefield allegory, Agatha Christie style whodunit and yes, a heist flick too although the job itself is kind of just a McGuffin that initiates a deliriously fun Europe trotting action film that sees a rogues gallery of mercenaries for hire make their way from London to Nice in search of a suitcase whose contents are never revealed. Robert DeNiro, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone are all on fire as dodgy rapscallions whose moral compasses, or lack thereof, are slowly revealed with each new turn of events.

3. Danny Boyle’s Trance

This film begins with a London art heist that is straightforward and takes place in our physical world and then delves into another one that takes place decidedly within in the mind to steal hidden information. Boyle’s best film kind of blindsides you as it progresses, exploring concepts of hypnotism, morality, psychological conditions and eventually even relationships, all existing around the theft of a painting whose whereabouts remain a tantalizing mystery. This is mature, unexpected, affecting, dynamic, trippy and altogether unique storytelling and is one of my favourite films of the past decade.

2. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

The rat pack got an update in this impossibly cool ensemble piece revolving around the complex, brazen and often hilarious heist of three Vegas casinos by veteran thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his motley crew. The easygoing, laidback hum of Vegas is a relaxing atmosphere for Soderbergh & Co to make this breezy, brisk caper come alive and never outstay it’s welcome nor pass too fleetingly. The character work is sublime too, from Brad Pitt shovelling junk food in to his mouth in every scene to Bernie Mac causing HR drama to Carl Reiner masquerading as a middle eastern businessman and, my personal favourite, Elliott Gould as a fussy Jewish teddy bear of a casino kingpin.

1. Michael Mann’s Heat

Score two for Mann! This masterful LA crime saga is pretty much the granddaddy of heist flicks as bird of prey super-cop Al Pacino hunts down elusive master burglar Robert DeNiro in an expansive showdown that moves all over the city and has many players and moving parts. There’s a near mythological grandiosity to this film, as well as meticulous detail employed in all the ballsy scores taken on by DeNiro and in Pacino’s ruthless efforts to bring him down. From an explosive armoured car hijacking on the tangled LA overpass to one of the most spectacular bank robbery turned firefights and a moody, mournful final showdown this thing soars of wings of pure craftsmanship and aesthetic mastery.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

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