Monday, January 10, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#10) Peter Yates's THE HOT ROCK

(In honor of the recently deceased Peter Yates, who directed dozens of films but all, until tonight, not seen by me, I dedicate this review of The Hot Rock to him and, with some time willing, tomorrow will finally watch a double-feature of Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both, I've been told, are fantastic works of pulp - and I don't doubt them as The Hot Rock is also one such work, a director at the peak of his powers)

This K-Billy Super-Sounds of the 70's as we keep on truckin...

The title 'The Hot Rock' might make one (such as myself, stupid ponce) think of something like a seedy disco that plays The Rolling Stones' 'Emotional Rescue' on an endless loop, or just a general track by a group of the rock n roll variety (and indeed just typing 'Hot Rock' in Google-image search pops up a cover for a song or album by Sleatter-Kinney).  But lo-and-behold it's a film, based on a book by Donald  "Bad Motherfucker Point Blank Richard Stark" Westlake, and the 'Rock' of the title is a diamond, the old lingo for it, and the 'Hot' meaning how much of a hard find it is. And so this is a caper/heist movie, but not of the usual variety.  For the avid fan of heist movies, as I am, this not only gives a heist, but *Four* heists.  And with satirical overtones.  Take THAT Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11!

But really, this is the kind of story that in other hands could, potentially, be a dramatic and ripping-dark yarn, as Westlake originally intended to write it as another Parker book.  As it is, it's got the thrills and the sincerity to take it seriously.  It's also got Robert Redford as a recently paroled thief who gets immediately roped in by his partner, optimistic criminal George Segal, and they scheme is both "good" and "bad" to Redford's (Dortmunder's) estimation: heist a jewel that is very rare for an African-premier in good ol' Manhattan from a museum in the night, and get it back to him for a cool $100 grand to split four ways between himself, his partner, and two lakeys.

The catch?  Well, by bad luck, or by some accursed fate, the diamond is not taken by Dortmunder or his partner Kelp but by a hapless young long-hair who swallows the diamond for safe-keeping and gets arrested in the museum.  Then he's in prison, so it's time for a prison break, which goes as well as any prison break could go under such tight circumstances and must-be-perfect timing.  After all, how often can one do a prison break with a just-on-the-dot driver who can pick up the escapees and breaker-inners to take them on a fast-speed drive into a truck to hide out for the night?  This goes well, all things considered... until it's revealed the little shit doesn't have the rock anymore.  Nope, it's in a police station holding cell where he left it for safe-keeping.  Is it there?  Oh boy, and here we go again...

This is perhaps best seen as a comedy of errors and classic heist movie hybrid.  This is somewhat mucked around by screenwriter William Goldman (whether it's also in Westlake's novel I can't say) by giving the characters some little idiosyncracies that are fun and goofy but give them a little more to them than your average heist movie, while at the same time not making them *too* goofy to the point that one can't see them pulling off any heist (i.e. Big Deal on Madonna Street, much better comedy than heist flick).  It's fun to watch these guys because, all little bumps here and there condiered like Kelp's tendency to get the shakes while trying to unlock a glass case, they are professionals and they know almost exactly what they're doing.  And, hey, they better, cause Amusa is footing the expenses, and other such things like a helicopter.

I liked the comedy in it, even from someone in a lead role like Redford, who is best at reacting to other calamaties anyway in his dry style.  Better is seeing Segal getting antsy, or best of all seeing Zero Mostel in a really sweet and sleazy supporting role as the young long-haired's father-lawyer who has a cane and bad hair and is conspiring against the robbers for that rock all on his own (sometimes just seeing Mostel's facial expressions are enough; he doesn't have to work too hard for laughs, which is always a treat when he's on top of a scene).  One can believe the world these guys are in, but it's never taken so seriously; it's actually PG rated after all, so it's the kind of tough, gritty heist movie one could watch with one's children, if one were not the loneliest number.... now where was I?  The movie, right right.

What will be appealing to people coming to the Hot Rock for the first time- or distracting depending on your point of view- is that Yates is directing in a style that is complimentary for its 70's period.  This isn't a super-fast and slick heist-comedy like an Ocean's 11.  Yates takes time with his set-ups, and probably takes more of a cue from Jean-Pierre Melville with mounting suspense in real-time (if not the total quiet of a Le Cercle Rouge).  There's also real suspense with these scenes as one of the guys loves to toss off some explosives and smoke bombs into situations as a diversion, never something so bad as to hurt people, just enough to get attention away from the crime at hand, which, as happens until the end, turns out poorly.  Only one sequence felt a little lagging in this approach of taking time with the scenes and that's the helicopter flying from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  It is a sight to see to take in the Twin Towers still under construction- this in a post 9/11 POV- but it just goes on for too long and takes away from the tension from on-the-way to the police station.  An unintentional stop on a wrong roof does get a good laugh, however.

Mostly The Hot Rock has got the good stuff of entertaining genre material, told by a storyteller who is confident with his characters, his actors, and in putting this heist genre on to its head and making it shuffle around until it ticks.  A great compliment with the material comes from the Quincy Jones score, smooth and super-bad and with a rhythm that is not conventional but sticks to the beats needed for scenes like break-ins and getaways, or pondering at a pub for the next move.  The comic situations have real inspiration, and the interest in the capers just increases with each one despite the bungling and problems in the group.  It's an example of how to do "light" filmmaking really, really well.  And, y'know, it does give a good way of making a play at an airtight vault.

Afghanistan Bananastan.  Repeat.  

1 comment:

  1. I'm disappointed in you, Jack. The picture caption should've said "It's been a hard day's heist."