Two questions loom heavy over Heist. First: What is Academy Award-winning actor Robert De Niro doing in a low-budget thriller so generic that even its title is recycled? De Niro has made lousy movies before (and more than ever lately), but his role here is so small and the film so middling that it’s almost distracting every time the star shows up. And question two: Would the movie be as (barely) entertaining as it is without De Niro? He only has about 15 minutes’ worth of scenes in Heist, but whenever he’s on-screen the film almost feels legitimate.
To be fair, Heist’s actual star is no slouch either. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Luke Vaughn, a riverboat casino dealer who used to be the hatchet-man for De Niro’s gang-lord Francis “The Pope” Silva, but walked away and took a demotion in the organization so that he could be a better husband and father. When Vaughn falls behind on the medical bills for his daughter, he comes to Pope asking for the $300,000 he needs to keep the little girl’s treatments going. But his boss reminds him that he didn’t become a kingpin by giving money away. So Vaughn conspires with a bouncer named Cox (Dave Bautista) to steal $3,000,000 of the Chinese mob’s money that’s being laundered through the casino.
Morgan has enough gravitas to stand up to De Niro in the two scenes they share together, and enough cool to fit comfortably alongside ex-wrestler Bautista. But Bautista’s acting skills are strained whenever he has to do more than snarl at anybody who crosses him. And the rest of Heist’s cast is all over the map. D.B. Sweeney pops up in a nothing role as a bus driver. Morris Chestnut makes for an unconvincing psychopath as the killer who replaced Vaughn as The Pope’s muscle. Former MMA star Gina Carano is a big stiff as a patrolwoman in pursuit of Cox and Vaughn. (Though it doesn’t help that she has to spout lines like, “I’m the cop and you’re the robber… That’s the game.”) Mark-Paul Gosselaar brings a little bit of welcome energy as a fast-talking lawman who takes over the investigation. And Kate Bosworth is negligible in her one scene as The Pope’s daughter: a community activist who warns him, “You. Can’t. Buy. Me!”
Director Scott Mann stages some credible chases and shoot-outs, though he leans too heavily on the thudding action score. And the movie as a whole takes itself way too seriously, missing either the exaggerated pulpiness or kicky looseness of a good B-crime saga. The blame for that can probably be laid at the feet of producer-screenwriter Stephen Cyrus Sepher, who also plays Cox’s buddy/lackey.
Heist’s best sequence is the actual heist, which like other classic movie capers plays out in time-jumping fashion, cutting back and forth between the execution and the planning—the latter mapped out on a diner table lined with spilled salt. But once the deed is done, the movie gets mired in a long hostage scenario, as Vaughn and Cox hijack a bus and use the passengers as bargaining chips. (Heist was originally called Bus 657, which is better reflects its contents… though it isn’t much grabbier.) All that’s left then is to watch Morgan mutter gruffly and heroically, and to wait for De Niro to return.
It’s not that The Pope does anything all that amazing in Heist. De Niro’s job description here calls for a lot of sitting around and saying what doesn’t really need to be said. (At one point when his henchman gives him some bad news, The Pope says, “Let’s recap…” and then just repeats the plot thus far.) But his faux-friendly line-readings and general disconnection from any surrounding crumminess make De Niro fun to watch—whenever he wanders back into the story, that is.
At the same time though, De Niro’s presence is a reminder of all the great and memorably lousy work he’s done in the past. In his first scene, the actor steps out of the shadows with an e-cigarette and grumbles, “I miss the satisfaction of something burning down to fucking ashes in your hand.” That sets the tone for Heist, and describes what this movie is going to be. What follows is a smokeless simulation of something that should be enjoyably sinful.