From the creepy underworld characters who assemble in the dark-shadowed Asphalt Jungle to the complex nuances of safe-cracking detailed in Jules Dassin's French classic Rififi, a heist film at its best can be a glorious, gripping rollercoaster where no matter how rotten or sleazy, crooks are viewed as sympathetic protagonists. The genre came into its own following World War II, when Hollywood's production code, which had prevented the depiction of crime planning in a film, began to crumble. The '50s brought classics like Stanley Kubrick's nonlinear The Killing, in which Sterling Hayden (also the star of The Asphalt Jungle) rips off a racetrack. Around the same time, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur portended elaborate casino robberies in films such as Seven Thieves and Ocean's Eleven.
Most heist films, even the best of them, follow a similar plotline wherein crooks are drafted into a scheme by some sort of mastermind, often an over-the-hill ex-con. They case the prospective target, perhaps getting into arguments or fistfights over who in the gang is not right for the job. Usually, more than halfway through the film, there's the actual heist, wrought with sweaty brows and itchy trigger fingers. (A few directors tweak the formula: Quentin Tarantino concentrated on the aftermath of a robbery in Reservoir Dogs without ever showing the actual shoot-'em-up.)
Vital to any decent heist film is a clever double or triple cross, as with the classic Criss Cross, in which Burt Lancaster plays a lovesick schlub who gets involved in an armored-car robbery in an attempt to woo back his former gal. The greatest heist films focus not only on the intricacies of drilling holes in a safe or melting down gold bullion, but eccentric criminal characters and their doom-laden psyches.
Taking a different angle on the heist genre is a new film, The Lookout, from first-time director Scott Frank, the screenwriter of Out of Sight. This is anything but your average heist film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who was fantastic in Mysterious Skin and Brick) plays a one-time high-school hockey star, Chris Pratt, who is recovering from a tragic accident that has left him mentally disabled. He falls in with the wrong crowd, enticed by a not-too-smart slut named Luvlee (Isla Fisher). Fisher is quite winning in her small part, as is Jeff Daniels, who plays Chris' blind roommate, another oddball character not unlike the one he played in The Squid and the Whale.
But there's never been a good heist film that featured crooks who weren't sufficiently oily and avaricious. Matthew Goode is completely unconvincing as lead creep Gary. He's neither satisfactorily charming nor menacing. Without a good lead scumbag, The Lookout lacks any insight into crook culture, one of the defining aspects of the genre. The Lookout's gaggle of crooks sporting sunglasses and shotguns look as if they were yanked from an old episode of Miami Vice. Not for a second does the audience imagine them to be anything more than cut-rate actors.
Also, throwing a mentally impaired dude into a heist drama doesn't really add much. There are times when the audience will forget that Chris is disabled, partially because Gordon-Levitt isn't very persuasive. The script feels the need to remind us of his troubles repeatedly, though through at least half the film Chris seems just ordinary. Gordon-Levitt is likable, but it's as if he weren't sure how a disabled person is supposed to act. Chris might have been a little more substantive and truer to the genre if he were a slightly darker protagonist. It's all very cozy: He participates in a serious felony seemingly without having a bad bone in his body.
Absolutely essential to a great heist film is action. Heist flicks are essentially thrillers and bullets should fly. However, the robbery in The Lookout is a complete dud, almost an afterthought. Though there is a decent amount of violence, the scenes of gunplay are just dopey. It falls apart when the shooting starts; these scenes are scripted and directed by Frank like the most dismal TV cop drama.
At least he was trying something different. The Lookout isn't a complete failure, like, say, David Mamet's Heist, with Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito, and to be sure, The Lookout isn't a retread. But it does deserve to be locked up somewhere so it doesn't get out again and commit another crime.