This week, Hollywood invites you to visit The Town, the new action/heist movie by sophomore director Ben Affleck, who also stars. It is the story of a group of Boston bank robbers who must contend with a tenacious FBI agent, played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm, dead-set on bringing them down. I loved Affleck's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, so I am jazzed to see what he can do with one of my favorite genres. But the impending release of The Town got me thinking about heist films in which the cops-and-robbers relationship, effectively the relationship between right and wrong, is boiled down to an adversarial matchup between two characters. Here are a few of my favorites...
There is no possible way I could construct this list without mentioning Michael Mann's seminal 1995 heist opus. Not only did Mann create the quintessential conflict between cop and robber, he did so by reuniting AI Pacino and Robert De Niro for the first time since The Godfather: Part II! There is no touching this film in terms of performance, cinematography, thrilling hold-ups or casting. My favorite scene in the film, the moment that canonizes its aptitude for this list, is in the coffee shop, where master thief De Niro flat-out tells dogging cop Pacino that he is not afraid to put a bullet in his head if he gets in his way. When any other actor says that, it's a threat. But when DeNiro says it, it's officially the day you peed your pants on set...unless you are cool-as-ice Pacino.
Mario Bava may be considered one of the holy triumvirates when it comes to Italian horror, but my all-time favorite film of his is Danger: Diabolik from 1968. This adaptation of an Italian comic book spins the various adventures of an incredibly adept criminal with a penchant for both black latex and grand larceny. The cop that is bound and determined to stop him is thwarted so many times that it becomes a running gag throughout the film that his superiors keep getting replaced as he fails to stop Diabolik. I don’t know if I prefer Diabolik escaping the dedicated cop via catapult or humiliating him in front of a television audience with the aid of laughing gas.
Having never been a fan of Spike Lee, I was absolutely blown away by his 2006 heist film Inside Man. Short of getting De Niro to battle Pacino yet again, there really is no finer casting of the film’s foibles than Clive Owen as the mastermind of the bank robbery and Denzel Washington as the cop doing everything in his power to save the hostages Owen is holding within. I love how Inside Man takes the typical dynamic of cob and robber and gives it an interesting political spin. The plot never flinches from the undeniable fact that the Owen’s character is always in control and that he really has anticipated the every movie of law enforcement. The ending is fantastic.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
No, I am not citing another Denzel film but rather referring to the 1974 original on which Tony Scott’s remake was based. The plot is essentially the same -- a madman and his crew seize control of a subway train and hold the passengers for ransom -- but it is superior to the remake by leaps and bounds. What is so great about this film is that the hero is a transit cop who triumphs by employing impeccable detective skills; not often does a transit cop get the chance to cinematically shine. Also, Robert Shaw plays the leader of the hijackers and is sinfully brilliant in every film in which he appears.
Admittedly, this choice is more than a little esoteric. Un Flic is a French film about a nightclub owner who is also a master thief and is planning the heist of his career. The director of Un Flic is a personal hero of mine by the name of Jean-Pierre Melville. If there were ever a filmmaker who knew how to allow both thieves and cops to epitomize cool, it was Melville. He would often refer to the trench coats and fedoras worn by noir-film heroes and villains alike as being the characters’ armor, comparing them to ancient warriors. Interestingly in Un Flic, the policeman investigating the robberies is the thief’s good friend, which creates a wonderful tension throughout the film.
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.