| David Mamet's script for this complex little puzzlebox of a film is excellent, with both snappy dialog and sometimes-predictable, sometimes-not plot twists and double, triple and quadruple cross piled on cross.
Almost anyone who could read the lines halfway convincingly and hit the marks and do the physical part would look good in this script, and you would have an enjoyable and fast-moving caper film.
But Gene Hackman's performance in the lead role raises it rather above that level. With Hackman embodying the man so cool that "when he goes to bed, sheep count him" as he deftly out-maneuvers and out-smarts all comers trying to take him down, this is a film that approaches the power of the glory days of film noir; of the days when Bogart and Raft and Robinson nd Cagney sneered at the camera and the world alike, made their own way with thundering guns and usually died the way that they lived -- "Top o' the world, Ma!" ((The Forties-style black-and-white Warner bros logo at the beginning hints at this.))
While hardly the only experienced pro in this film, Hackman is the one who simply walks in, takes the film, and puts it in hsi pocket and walks away with it.
Even if the rest of the cast and the plot were total borax, this is a film that would be worth watching just for Hackman and his performance.
But Danny DeVito, Sam Rockwell (last seen predicting his own eminent death as a comic-relief character in "Galaxy Quest"), Rebecca Pidgeon and Delroy Lindo, while simply not up to Hackman's bravura level (though DeVito comes close as the Bad Guy) fully support and complement Hackman, giving this jewel a sparkle and hardness that few films reach.
The complexity and precision of the actual caper, with split-second timing necessary, and almost everyone operating at least partially under his own agenda, reminded me of the better episodes of TV's "Mission Impossible", a high compliment in this context.
And the crosses and re-crosses and re-re-crosses that ensue are simply glorious to watch working out on screen, trying to guess what comes next.
Some weeks ago, i reviewed the Deniro film "The Score", with a headline along the lines of "Not So Much a Caper As a Stately Waltz". By those standards, this is a fast and torrid tango, with passion and betrayal hot and cold on every hand.
Great caper film. Better, possibly, than "Thief" (though i haven't seen "Thief" in a few years) -- but, even it it isn't, still one of the better caper films in many years.