James owes his life to his older brother, Frankie after taking the rap for a crime they committed together. While Frankie served time, James worked to turn his life around, got a steady job and began courting his former girlfriend Emily. Now, Frankie is released and back on the streets with no money and no place to go.
I'm one of those guys that appreciates it when a movie is making an earnest effort to be something more than the sum of its parts. A central idea or a broad theme can be a good thing when it's honed to perfection and played out by a character who may be a tad morally conflicted. Heist movies are a great example of this, because on one hand you're there to root for the bad guys in a sense because they're taking part in an illegal operation for profit. But then on the other hand their "victims" are usually a shady person or a big corporation that deserves what they've got coming to them. To that end, I appreciate that 'American Heist' tries to be a movie about a little post-recession, post-Katrina economic vengeance, but at the same time the film flounders under the weight of an overly simplistic and cliched script.
James Kelly (Hayden Christensen) is on the slow path to putting his life back together. After getting involved boosting cars with his screw-up older brother Frankie (Adrien Brody), James did sixteen months in prison while Frankie got put away for ten years. In that time, James has found his niche as an auto mechanic. Proving himself to be a whiz at the job, James is ready to open his own shop. He's got the location worked out, a solid business plan - all he needs is a small business loan, but the bank won't give him one. Struggle as he might, things aren't all bad. His former flame Emily (Jordana Brewster) has moved back to New Orleans working as a police dispatcher and it just so happens she needs her car repaired. While life is a little up and down for James, things are about to get a whole lot worse when Frankie gets let out of prison.
After breaking into James' home just to see his little brother, Frankie is doing everything he can to make amends and reconnect with his estranged brother he hasn't seen since he went inside. As the years passed, their relationship soured and James knows the appearance of his brother just means bad news is on the horizon. It turns out bad news comes in the form of local wanna-be gangster Sugar (Akon) and his partner Ray (Tory Kittles). Their big plan is to blow up some cars and cause a lot of damage all over the city. With the cops distracted, they're going to swoop into the local big bank and take back a piece of America that they're owed. James would just assume not have any part of it, but with the lives of Frankie as well as Emily in danger, he has little choice but to go along with it.
At first everything goes perfectly. The cops don't know what's happening all over the city and they're completely unaware of the fact that a major local bank is being taken for everything it has in the vault. Just when the plan was working like a dream, everything falls apart and James, Frankie and Sugar and Ray are left with no other choice but to take hostages. With their backs to the wall, the only way out requires Frankie and James to put everything on the line and may cost them their lives in the process.
'American Heist' was so frustratingly close to being a really good movie. There is plenty of set up, we believe the strained relationship between Frankie and James. We want to see James get his own shop because he seems like a decent guy who made one bad decision years ago. We even want James and Emily to reconnect. The problem is this movie's script by Baul Ingus under the direction of Sarik Andreasyan hits every note in the cliche book. If there were a drinking game where every time something cliche happens and you sarcastically say "of course" and you take a shot; if I were playing I think I would have died from alcohol poisoning. All of the elements are there for a great movie, but everything is played so base that it never rises above mediocre.
I'll give every bit of credit to the actors involved with 'American Heist.' Hayden Christensen proves he's still got some talent in him and we really should work hard to forget the 'Star Wars' prequel movies. Adrien Brody is always awesome and he's really giving it his all here. My only real complaint for either of these two are their faux Chicago/Boston tough guy accents. After awhile they start to sound a little silly, especially when their A's turn to O's and lines start to sound like: "You've gowt soom bowls coming round here!" Jordana Brewster does well with the thin material she's given, but again the short run of the film doesn't give her much more to do other than look concerned. Akon and Tory Kittles are fine bad guys and they put up enough menace to be taken seriously as a threat to James' well-being.
Some of the biggest problems come in the form of Frankie and James' relationship. It's fine that it's strained, it should be considering the circumstances and James' reluctance to go back to crime works. What brings it down is how James is compelled to work for Sugar and Ray. It's not because Frankie is a good guy and James doesn't want to see his brother killed - it's because Frankie owes these guys for protecting Frankie after he was apparently repeatedly raped in prison. That reasoning just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Sure it's awful that happened, but it's also something that feels cribbed from 'Oz' than anything genuine. It's implied that Frankie took a bigger fall to save his brother serious time - that's enough. The rape angle didn't need to be there, it's base. It doesn't add to the character because so much of this material has already been implied.
Added to that is the budding rekindled relationship between Emily and James. It doesn't take long to assume where things are going to go when James starts fixing her car in his off hours for free, it's just how it gets there that feels campy and like it was stolen from bad romance novels. When there is an entire conversation about the weather and how it might rain and then when it does immediately begin to rain and Emily walks out into said rain wearing little more than a skimpy white skirt… well, you can guess what happens next because you guessed it was going to happen a half an hour earlier.
As a dramatic look at what the economic downturn did to average working folks, 'American Heist' is overly simplistic and on the nose. As a heist film, 'American Heist' is undercooked. Part of the "fun" of a heist movie, whether you're intended to root for the bad guys or not, is the build up to the heist itself. The planning phase is what makes the movie. There isn't a planning phase here. By the time James gets roped into Sugar and Ray's scheme, the plan is done. He's there to boost some cars. That's it. He doesn't add anything to the equation, he doesn't contribute to the plan, he doesn't tell them their plan sucks and helps them work out a better plan. He's just there to rip off cars. So why is he there? If Sugar and Ray are as bad as they say they are, I'm sure they know a dozen guys better suited for the job. James is there really only so he can come to terms with Frankie, but after all the build up, we don't really care as much as we're probably supposed to. The heist itself starts out cool, it's really fun to see them blow up some cars or link three vehicles to a passing bus - but from then on it tries to become 'Heat' only not nearly as intense or as cool.
For the actors involved and the concept put forth at the outset of the movie, 'American Heist' was ultimately a disappointment for me. I don't feel like I'm someone with overly stringent standards to be entertained, but this one just did not do it for me. 'American Heist' is worth seeing for Brody and Christensen's performances but little else. If you're curious about this one, proceed with caution and keep expectation for dynamic action and thrills in check.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'American Heist' arrives on Blu-ray from Lionsgate and is pressed on a Region A locked BD50 disc. Housed an eco-case with slip cover, the disc opens to a series of trailers for future and past Heist related Lionsgate releases before reaching the main menu. Also included with the disc is an Ultraviolet Digital HD voucher.
'American Heist' offers up a sportingly strong 2.40:1 1080p transfer. Colors while subdued for mood, are usually bright and vibrant and offer up some accurate flesh tones. Again there is a prescribed "mood" going here so sometimes actors can appear a little sickly given a particular scene. Detail levels are absolutely fantastic. Shot digitally, you can easily appreciate all of the fine details in facial features, Brody and Christensen's tattoos, as well as the Toronto and New Orleans filming locations. Black levels and shadows are strong and offer up a fantastic sense of three-dimensional depth - especially during the climactic shootout sequence during the heist. Crush isn't much of an issue for this one. Free of any compression artifacts like banding, this is an impressive transfer that works well for the film.
Rolling with a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track, 'American Heist' packs an auditory wallop - especially once the action kicks into gear. The majority of the film is relatively quiet and conversation loaded. Dialogue is crisp and clear and is never a struggle to hear, even when the guns start firing. Imaging is actually very effective throughout as there is a lot of background ambient sounds in any given scene as well as some welcome atmospheric effects to keep the surround channels engaged and present throughout. For the most part, the audio keeps to the midranges and levels are nicely balanced. When the third act kicks in and things get a little louder you may need to keep an eye on your volume. My setup didn't spike too much, but just the same the gunfire elements can put out a lot of extra kick.
Creating A Complex Caper: Pulling Off American Heist: (HD 25:57) Better than your average EPK feature, you get a lot of interview time between the actors and producers. Brief but still informative and at least shows everyone involved was at least trying to make a good flick.
'American Heist' tries to do way too much in entirely too little time. Picture a near three-hour epic like 'Heat' packed into 95 minutes. The guts are there, but the final film isn't as great as it clearly could have been. Lionsgate put together a fine disc with a strong A/V presentation that does the moody film justice. Extra features are skimpy but still a little informative. I may not have enjoyed the movie, but I can see it finding an audience. It's at least worth a rental.