Flix Picks is a new semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.
When Ben Affleck wrote about his favorite heist films earlier this month, he positioned The Friends of Eddie Coyle at the top of his list. That movie, while relatively lesser-known, has received some attention lately due to the death of its director, Peter Yates, and a new DVD/Blu-ray release through Criterion. It’s gritty, violent, and you can easily see the influence it had on Affleck’s latest film, The Town.
The combination of Yates’ death and Affleck’s list led me to view another heist film recently called The Hot Rock, starring Robert Redford. It’s another Peter Yates film released just a year prior to Eddie Coyle which throws comedy into the mix as opposed to hardened realism. The film follows a team of thieves as they attempt to steal a precious diamond for a government official. Although altogether different from the tough world of Yates’ follow-up film, The Hot Rock holds its own as a pleasurable watch and one that could deserve some rediscovering of its own.
The film begins as Mr. Dortmunder (Redford) receives his release from prison. The warden thinks he might see him again and we suspect he may be right. Almost immediately after entering civilian life, Dortmunder is recruited for a heist by his brother-in-law Kelp, played by George Segal. They are hired by Dr. Amusa, an African ambassador who wants the famous Sahara diamond stolen because it’s of cultural importance to his home country. Once they agree on terms, Dortmunder and Kelp recruit two more men for their team: Murch, the driver and mechanical whiz, along with Greenberg, an expert in explosives. Together they’re a crack team of thieves who can execute the most elaborate of plans. However, as professional as they may be, a few complications arise in their acquisition of the diamond and the team’s credibility dwindles in the eyes of their backer. Hijinks ensue.
The Hot Rock takes a gradual approach to its comedy, building up the laughs as the situation goes from bad to worse. No matter how much elaborate planning they execute, these guys just can’t catch a break, losing the diamond at every turn. Part of the fun comes from watching the team state their case to Dr. Amusa for more supplies after their failed robbery attempts. Some of his responses to the team’s setbacks are highlights of the film. (“I had heard, of course, of the habitual criminal. But I never thought to become involved in the habitual CRIME.”) Naturally, the longer the film goes, the sillier it gets. At one point, the team must invade a police station to recapture the diamond, causing mass hysteria as opposed to a using a stealthy approach. William Redfield (who you might recognize from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) has a small, funny, part as a police chief who’s convinced a revolution is taking place.
As far as heist movies go, this one reminded me of Ocean’s 12, only much more enjoyable. Each film features criminals who undergo a series of misadventures in order to steal expensive objects. However, where Ocean’s 12 got bogged down in side-plots involving relationships we don’t care about, The Hot Rock stays on target. From the opening few minutes we know the objective and the film doesn’t let up from there. It’s also as lighthearted as the Ocean’s films, but it takes the time to set up some suspense. The initial heist contains tense moments as the team unlocks the display for the diamond as security guards are momentarily distracted. Later, the stakes increase as one team member’s life is put on the line for some information on the diamond’s whereabouts.
As far as the performances go, there are some real gems among the cast. The overall chemistry between the leads is enjoyable. Ron Liebman really seems to be having fun as Murch, the loose cannon of the bunch. It’s probably the showiest role among the four leads and Liebman takes full advantage of it. There’s a maniacal sense of glee he inhabits that’s just contagious. Perhaps equally as showy is Zero Mostel who shows up late in the film as Greenberg’s father. In the few films I’ve seen him, he’s always been great at chewing the scenery and this film is no exception. George Seagal performs admirably as the fast-talking Kelp. He acts slick even though he’s probably in over his head with this caper. As for Robert Redford, he fits the starring role nicely, grounding a film full of crazy happenings. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if another actor would have brought more to the table. Sure, Redford had the matinee-idol looks, but someone with a slight comedic edge might have benefited the film more.
If there’s one criticism I have of the film, it’s the ending. While not exactly a deal-breaker, it does feel lazy, especially considering the events that precede it. Without spoiling anything I’ll just say that a character we haven’t met before gets introduced and a special set of skills are utilized. While still keeping with the overall tone of the film, the stakes at the end don’t feel as high as they should. Even if they had been increased, the film would still be a somewhat inconsequential, but fun, experience.
The Hot Rock may not be remembered as director Peter Yates’ best work, but it’s a solid comedy-caper film that delivers on what it promises. It features some worthwhile performances and plenty of laughs. If you’re a fan of movies like How to Steal a Million, To Catch a Thief, or Ocean’s 11, then you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you have a Netflix account, give it a watch and let us know what you think.