Reading Mike Vanderbilt’s recent review of Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER caused me to do a bit of soul-searching about the unique romanticism of the heist genre. Many of the antiheroes of the genre are sociopaths- lonely, driven men with an all consuming passion for perfectionism. They have a sexy, brooding quality and a single minded devotion to the women in their lives. These men vow it’s only one last score and then you’ll be whisked away to paradise, whether it’s the tropical waters of Fiji with Neil MacCauley of HEAT or driving to Mexico with Max Dembo of STRAIGHT TIME.
In Michael Mann’s THIEF, Frank (James Caan) has settled down with Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and is ready to start a family. The pain and sadness they face going through the adoption process is its own injustice. They acquire a baby through the black market and the sound of Tangerine Dream beautifully underscores the happy family at the beach. Their newfound bliss is cut short when the family is threatened and he has to send them away. The viewer is given the time to develop an emotional connection to this relationship, every decision he makes belies its maturity.
Mann is an expert on fleshing out this type of couple again in HEAT. Each member of the crew is given a life and a relationship, as we see in one group dinner. Chris and Charlene Shiherlis (Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd) have a partnership, she is loyal to him emotionally if not physically. “The sun rises and sets on her” as he says. I could write an entire separate article on the dynamics of Neal and Eady (Robert De Niro and Amy Brenneman), but for the sake of this, let’s focus on the driver, played by Dennis Haysbert. He is fresh out of prison and can only take a short order cook job in a diner where he is being taken advantage of by his boss. His wife reassures him with a gentle touch that no matter what situation he is in, he always has a home. In what could easily be a senseless subplot, we are given the strength of a couple that will always see each other through. There’s an acceptance between them, a mutual caring that can only be taken away by death.
More recently we have the tender, awkward love of the Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE. Stoic and silent, he has a genuine affection for her and her little boy, taking them for rides through the Silver Lake Reservoir, exploring a romanticized LA to a synth pop beat. He is driven by a sense of honor and is a perfect gentleman, respecting her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) when he returns from prison. Standard is never portrayed necessarily as a bad guy, he doesn’t beat his wife or threaten the Driver, he tells his son the charming story of how they met at a party. He’s just another man who’s fallen in with the the seedy LA underworld and can’t pull himself loose. The Driver does the noble thing by doing a job with him, as ill-fated as it is, after the family is threatened. Nothing is more swoon worthy than the protective way the Driver’s arm shields Irene in the elevator as he pulls her into their first slow-motion kiss, only to be interrupted by a necessary head-stomping.
Romantic comedies are all about the “meet cute” and wacky misunderstandings. Heist film romances are about life or death, trust and protection and devotion. They may start in the middle of a marriage or under the worst circumstances, but these men and women know what they’re getting into. Love is the greatest risk of all.
Tags: Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Carey Mulligan, Chicago, Crime, Dennis Haysbert, James Caan, Los Angeles, Neo-Noir, Nicolas Winding Refn, Noir, oscar isaac, Robert De Niro, Romance, Ryan Gosling, Tangerine Dream, tuesday weld, Val Kilmer