A conversation occurs midway through Sarik Andreasyan’s “American Heist,” in which a thug quotes Thomas Jefferson, his favorite US president; “The banking institutions are more dangerous than the army.” Our mind immediately calls back to Brad Pitt’s closing monologue in “Killing Them Softly” where he singles out the very same Jefferson as a hypocrite, guilty for founding America as a business. Some films have a tendency to comment scathingly on an allegedly corrupt American financial system, dispelling the myth of the American dream with eager cynicism (most especially certain films that call attention to these critiques by including the word ‘American’ in their title. Some, like Andrew Dominik’s exceptionally colloquial piece, artfully unravel the fabric of this culture through intelligent and subtle cinematic means, while others tear into the very same fabric with a blunt instrument, until the viewer is left exasperated. Andreasyan’s film doesn’t waste much time in firmly rooting itself in the latter category.
10 years of painful prison time hasn’t stopped Frankie (Adrien Brody) from jumping right back into crime as soon as he gets released. While doing time, he falls in with two gangsters, Sugar (Akon) and Ray (Tory Kittles), and feels like he owes them for the protection they provided him on the inside. But he needs his younger brother’s help. Jimmy (Hayden Christensen) is working as a mechanic and is trying to avoid trouble since he needs a bank loan for his business. The two brothers reunite over a bad joke and a fistfight, but the love each feels for the other is evident from the outset; they are each other’s only family, and it’s the two of them against the world. Jimmy may be younger, but he is more mature and clear-headed, and as soon as he meets Sugar and Ray, he knows they are bad news. Despite his better judgment, he agrees to drive them to a rendezvous and, after it predictably goes awry, Ray makes sure Jimmy realizes that he is now involved in dirty business once more.
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It wouldn’t be any kind of crime film if there wasn’t a lady waiting to become potential collateral damage. In this case it’s Emily (Jordana Brewster), who steps back into Jimmy’s life. She needs help with her car, he’s a mechanic; it’s as simple as that. What complicates matters is when Frankie’s friends follow Jimmy and see him dropping her off at the police station where she works as a dispatch operator. Nothing can come between Sugar and Ray and their next big heist; robbing a bank. Ray, the aforementioned philosophizing gangster who quotes Jefferson, is determined to see his own brand of justice meted out. Frankie feels terrible for pulling Jimmy back into this world, but he’s also doggedly optimistic that things will work out. Jimmy, on the other hand, is stuck with a mistrustful brother he can’t help but care for and two thugs who refuse to take no for an answer.
Video games, Michael Mann films, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and rap videos are a few of the most noticeable influences in Andresayan’s film. Leaving aside the fact that that all of those influences are infinitely superior to ‘American Heist’ for a moment, let’s just go over the specifics of this cliché-riddled film. Sarik Andreasyan is a 30-year-old Armenian director making his English language debut, with a screenplay written by Raul Inglis, whose last writing gig was for an Uwe Boll film. When one reads that sentence again, all the pieces start to fit. As a crime film, ‘Heist’ is a complete mess, with one-note characters, an idiotically planned out bank job, and the climactic heist edited and directed with the finesse of a blind butcher. A perfect example is the technique of mounting the camera on a given actor and pointing the lens at his face, which is meant to put the viewer “in the moment,” vicariously experiencing the character’s distress. Andreasyan is so in love with this technique that he renders it into an over-saturated, blunt, almost deliberately asinine gimmick. Where the film saves itself from complete damnation is in the story of two damaged brothers.
Wherever their inspiration came from, Brody and Christensen give fantastic performances. Brody, with tattoos all over his body and a gold chain to represent how gangster he is, has “fuck up” written all over his face as soon as we see him leave prison, turning out a truly electric performance. Christensen, in turn, is less showy as the calmer Jimmy, but he too looks motivated to bring out his very best. Two telling scenes, in particular, are so super-charged with emotion and regret that the two actors make you forget, for a second, all of the film’s drawbacks. Thanks to those two, and a few splashes of surprisingly genuine dialogue, ‘American Heist’ manages to drag something significant out of the muck.
Alas, this doesn’t excuse the film’s childish simplicity, be it a line of cheesy dialogue, an overused camera trick, or the primitive romance (there is a “rain scene” with Emily and Jimmy that’s so contrived it hurts). Despite the valiant efforts from the two leads, the only thing of value that gets robbed in “American Heist” is our time. [D+]