The first episode of Heist began by crosscutting between two sets of criminals, a contrast in styles. One duo slouched their way into a jewelry store, chatting incessantly, while the other cons chased down a moving train in roaring ATVs, veins popping out of their foreheads. An undercover cop arrested this second crew, while the first got their names atop the credits. They’re Mickey (Dougray Scott) and James (Steve Harris), the quipping figureheads of this post-modern genre workout.
Heist is a cleverly restructured version of Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans Eleven, sapped of stars and wit. Writers and producers Marc and Rob Cullen attempted a similar redo on their previous show, Lucky. This time, they’re joined by Doug Liman as executive producer and director. Best known for directing The Bourne Identity, he shares the Cullens’ affection for crime genres and of self-referential patter. But Scott and Harris lack the performative flamboyance or intertextual baggage of movie stars like Pitt and Clooney, making much of their pop banter (referring to rock star deaths or Mother Theresa) sound like a series of awkward non sequiturs.
The indispensable Seymour Cassel (a guest star on Lucky) plays the grizzled old pro Pops, and manages to add depth to the precious dialogue. He had little to do in the first two episodes, except in one deftly underplayed scene with his Alzheimer’s-suffering wife, smoothly handling the awkward shift from the bemused irony of the crew to broad melodrama. This change in tone looks to become a pattern, as in the second episode cut from Mickey blithely planning a crime to spying on his estranged wife and daughter, replete with a slo-mo “I love you Daddy” flashback sequence. Not even Cassel could redeem that much bathos; Scott didn’t come close.
But if these characters lack discernable inner lives, their surfaces offer plenty to consider formally. The premiere episode’s pleasures were concentrated in the structure of the central action set-piece, in which Mickey’s crew stole a bank’s cash from a kid who was forced to rob it by Armenians. These villains were kidnapping white teens, strapping bombs to them, and demanding they pull the jobs. During the robbery, the point of view shifted between the heisters and the police, led by lead detective Michele (Amy Sykes), the undercover cop from the opening, thus repeating the initial crosscutting pattern. This time, however, the plot strands intersected and marked the beginning of her entanglement with Mickey.
Unlike the characters, each step of the heist was carefully drawn, proceeding logically in a series of reversals, both physical and mental. Michele believed she was chasing the terrorists and the money when she was actually chasing Pops; she discovered the terrorists were riding in a cop car beside her. Pops’ car was then swapped for another, and Michele ended up catching an innocent driver. This major reversal was preceded by minor ones, like the rigging of a stoplight and switching a storm drain lid.
Both the editing and the physical action tied Michele to Mickey and his crew in a relationship built on deception. Mickey’s hesitant flirtations with Michele began as he donned an alias at a dance class; her coy rebuff withheld as much information as his blatant lie. The episode’s conclusion elaborated on their connection while also tying the initial jewelry robbery to Michele. Mickey placed a talisman he stole at her bedside, alerting her to his group’s presence, via a sly bit of “gamesmanship.”
The next episode, though less tightly organized, did include one especially well-conceived sequence, a high speed car chase intercut with Mickey’s date with Michele. The crew informed the lead driver of police positions, and he drove thrillingly as Mickey and Michele reached their own sort of “euphoria” via their cat-and-mouse flirtations. The driver was arrested while Mickey fell in love with a cop, parallel images suggesting limitations, by choice or not.
Form fit snugly with content in these scenes, linking the work of the group with the life of the individual. But while this polished surface provided thematic substance, the rest of Heist needs another dose of restructuring.