Heists have long been a favorite subject of the cinematic imagination. At its core, the heist movie is simple: some charismatic criminals plan a robbery, carry it out and inevitably run into hitches along the way. Heists are found throughout the films noir of the 1950s, with Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), featuring a real-time safecracking centerpiece and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), with its existential ending of stolen money blowing away like dust in the wind, two influential examples among many.
In the New Hollywood films of the 1960s and 70s, heists became chic and newly resonant with the emerging counterculture - few criminals have been more attractive than Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That film’s violent end predicted years of bloodshed and sketchy morals in cinema. Latter day auteurs have often tried to capture the enduring cool of those earlier films. Since the 90s, heist films have been pastiche, with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) being the most popular and frequently imitated example.
Heist films may be making a comeback. Earlier this summer, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver featured Ansel Elgort as an impassive getaway driver in a world of quick cuts and vintage pop songs that suggest a watered-down Tarantino. The plot of the recently released Good Time hinges on the aftermath of a botched heist. Steven Soderbergh, who already explored the heist genre in his star-filled Ocean’s 11 series, has just made his return to the big screen after his attenuated retirement with Logan Lucky, a zippy tale of an elaborate scheme to rob North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway during a bustling NASCAR event. With all these films, and a sure to be popular all-woman Ocean’s 11 reboot in the pipeline for next summer, it seems the heist is having a moment. In an increasingly bleak political situation, with far too many comic book movies onscreen, the heist film offers an appealing mode of escapism that’s decidedly more down to earth than the typical summer blockbuster.
Logan Lucky is a highly self-aware take on the genre. At one point Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), the heist mastermind, reads a list of ten rules for committing a robbery, which includes such obvious (but nevertheless helpful) tidbits as “don’t get caught.” Late in the film, a newswoman refers to the crime as “Ocean’s 7-11” – a directorial wink if ever there was one. Like the best heist films, there’s a sense of urgency to the scheme, even as it becomes increasingly convoluted (here involving an underground cash-handling system, and at one point a bomb made of gummy bears) and the audience inevitably roots for the criminals to triumph. Logan Lucky is a tale of society’s have-nots attempting to set things right by robbing one of the most garish symbols of America imaginable. The colorful fast cars and tubes of cash that fill the screen create a dizzying spectacle. While the film works well as a sendup of kitschy American pageantry, its awareness borders on overt quirkiness after a while. Logan’s brother, Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), are in on the scheme along with the amusingly named demolition expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). Everyone speaks in annoyingly exaggerated southern accents. Clyde, a war veteran, is missing an arm, and when his prosthetic falls off during the robbery, his impairment becomes a broad piece of comic window-dressing. Seth MacFarlane plays a rich racecar driver, and his over the top British accent and facial hair make him a caricature of the douchebag jetsetter. These quirky flourishes feel too easy, and conversations about the film’s depiction of the southern white working class and all it represents feel inevitable. Logan Lucky is at its best when it is freewheeling, when its characters perfectly balance smart and stupid. The yin and yang of smart and stupid is a big part of the heist movie’s appeal. You need a level of brash, dumb confidence to even think about trying to rob an event like a NASCAR race, but actually following through with it, and keeping up with all those logistics (logistics that the audience themselves might not even follow) requires no small amount of savvy. This cockiness is what gives Logan Lucky its charm.
While Logan Lucky may not attain heist icon status, it feels like a playful throwback and helps prove the genre’s enduring appeal. In a year besieged by annoying rich men, the spectacle of robbery becomes oddly satisfying. Yes, it’s a crime, but motives can be understood and the criminals are presented as charming. It seems that the archetypal heist plot can spin out in any number of variations, and it should be interesting to see how the upcoming Ocean’s 11 reboot spins this typically male genre. Heist plots don’t get old because the wish fulfillment and spectacle at the heart of the genre are adaptable – the robbery formula can be written and rewritten as necessary, and much of the appeal of the crime comes from the unique presence of charismatic stars. As long as there are people with way too much money, there will be a majority that dreams of getting away with scamming them. Heist films are the closest most of us will ever get, of course. Their combination of moral ambiguity and bravado set pieces will always make robbery fun to watch, even if it fails.