5 Clever Heist Movies that Kept the Formula Fresh

In honor of Soderbergh’s excellent new film, Logan Lucky, which sees the filmmaker being branded as a master of the heist movie, I thought it would be fun to check out some of my favorite films of the genre. Who doesn’t love a good heist flick? From the plan, to the “assembling the team” montage, to the execution of plans A, B, and C, heist films work best when they alternate between procedure and subversion, allowing the audience to be in on the caper while simultaneously being fooled by cinematic prestidigitation. But for a genre to rely so heavily on formula becomes it’s own challenge. How can freshness be maintained? Each of the movies listed here have found a way to pull it off.

Inside Man (dir. Spike Lee, 2006)

My favorite part of any heist film is the moment, usually toward the end of the film, when it’s revealed that the successful robbery went even deeper than it appeared. Up until this point the viewer is made to feel like a member of the crew, only to find that they, much like the film’s mark, have been cleverly misinformed. Inside Man pulls this trick at least once per act, causing an outward spiral of snowballing details which go unnoticed until the whole picture has been revealed. The title then takes a triple meaning: it’s the moniker of a member of any band of robbers, it’s a riff on the movie’s biggest reveal (I won’t spoil), and it’s a playful slap in the face to the audience as if to say “you thought you were in on it, but you thought wrong.”

Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Yes, I know this isn’t what you’d typically call a heist movie, but I think it’s inclusion here is valid because of the way Lincoln sets about having the Emancipation Proclamation written into law. To end the Civil War peacefully AND maintain the Union AND end slavery was a very tall order at the time. One or two of those things, sure, but to obtain all three would require a heck of a lot of schmoozing, and President Lincoln knew this. The bulk of Spielberg’s historical epic takes the form of an extended “assembling the team” segment. We meet each player one by one, and learn what it is they want and what they are willing and able to do in order to get it. Watching the film’s final act is just like watching a grand robbery plan come together. Only a certain set of pre-designed circumstances would lead to complete success, and the massive political and logistical undertaking through which these circumstances came to fruition is as satisfying to watch as any safe-cracking thriller.

Sexy Beast (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2001)

Speaking of “assembling the crew,” neo-gangster classic Sexy Beast consists almost entirely of a terrifying subversion of said trope. Imagine if in the middle of, say, Ocean’s Eleven, when George Clooney pitches his caper to the gang, one of them just said no, and didn’t allow any amount of coaxing to change his tune. Now we all know that doing such a thing would derail a film, and exploring this gag would probably require a film of its own. That film is Sexy Beast. It’s nowhere near as funny as I’m making it sound. In fact, it’s not really funny at all so much as it’s deeply upsetting, and it magnifies an area of the heist formula that is so often glossed over by the predetermined compliance of a superstar cast.

Fast Five/Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (dir. Justin Lin, 2011; dir. Brad Bird, 2011) 

These two are combined into one entry because both films offer a similarly explosive and fun application of the heist formula. What I mean is that both are later entries into established franchises which previously only featured disparate elements of classic heist flicks. In their respective fifth and fourth entries the filmmakers decided to go all in, checking off every requisite box to qualify as an unquestionable entry in the genre while also keeping each film firmly entrenched within the canon of their own series. It shows that even if one can’t subvert a potentially tired genre into freshness, one can always apply it to a beloved set of characters and find new legs for it all the same.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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