Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Hot Rock (1972)

A gem about a gem, The Hot Rock is the sort of film that inspired Steven Soderbergh to make a bunch of movies about funny, likable, slightly inept thieves. I know this because the internet told me so, but it was pretty obvious while I was watching this movie, which I had never heard of before and watched on a complete lark because it co-starred George Segal and it was from a period (the early to mid 1970s) when, in my opinion, George Segal was the balls.

I absolutely loved this movie, and that is probably due, in part, to the fact that I'd never heard of the picture and didn't have high expectations for it and it also starred Robert Redford who I always think I'm going to hate in every movie he's in. Of course, then he charms me in every movie he's in and I remember that's why he's one of the biggest movie stars of the last half-century: specifically because he can charm everyone into liking him. Likable bastard, making me like him. Why can't he play a leper or a guy who eats puppies?

So The Hot Rock is one of the two films Soderbergh watched as research for the Ocean's pictures (The other, awesomely enough, is Ghostbusters. Soderbergh is so cool he hurts me and my lameness). He pretty much borrows everything, from the milieau of location-heavy comedic heists to the camraderie of the thieves, and what he didn't use for Ocean's Eleven he took for Twelve which is arguably even more Hot Rockian in its construction. I love both Ocean's, but The Hot Rock is maybe a little better, a little funnier, a little more satisfying, a little more organic, and I would guess that Soderbergh, cool as he is, would agree with me.

Redford plays John Dortmunder, freshly released from prison (just as Danny Ocean is at the start of Eleven) and ready to score. He's picked up from prison by his brother-in-law Andrew (Segal), who was part of the reason Dortmunder was in the clink in the first place. He doesn't want to trust Andrew but he really can't resist, especially when Andrew's got a honey of an assignment picked out: an African ambassador to the United Nations (Moses Gunn, giving both regal and sinister with equal aplomb) wants a rare gem that's being displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. He could go through diplomatic channels but he's pretty sure that won't work and even if it did, it takes too long, so he hires Arthur and Dortmunder to steal it.

Without ruining too much, the heist is relatively early in the film and it goes both well and poorly; they steal the gem but they lose it too, so they've got to recover it, which means another heist, and so on. The movie is full of inventive schemes; and, really, inventive schemes are the best parts of heist movies. You present an impossible objective and you watch your heroes figure out a way to make the impossible possible. It's the best part, except most heist movies have one good scheme; this one has like six. I'm not a math guy, but I think that, mathematically, that makes The Hot Rock six times better than every other heist movie ever made.

Call me biased, but I'm sorry; I simply cannot not love any movie that involve priceless human excrement, guys climbing walls with ropes like the Adam West Batman TV show, and Zero Mostel playing a shyster. Here he's the lawyer to one of Redford's gang, and Zero, in full-on Max Bialystock mode, steals every damn scene. Has any human ever played despicable as lovably as Zero? He was like the Hulk of lovable assholes: the jerkier Zero get, the more likable Zero get!

Along with The Hot Rock, my favorite Redford picture is The Sting. What is it about the guy that makes him so good at playing desperate con men? He's like an adonis — his hair is so perfectly tossled in The Hot Rock it looks like he just stepped out of a shampoo commercial — so why does he play scumbags so well? And Segal; well I've already established that Segal is the balls, but here's a great example. He has almost no jokes in the movie, but everything he says and does is funny. He plays a similar character to the one I love from California Split: both are sort of losers who put up good fronts, he doesn't let you see their desperation but you can sense it behind their laugh and their cool-dude sunglasses. I also want to point out the other two members of the gang, Ron Leibman and Paul Sand, who aren't big stars (I didn't know either one until I looked them up on IMDb and realized I'd seen them each in a bunch of stuff) but who hold their own with Redford and Segal wonderfully. Leibman is the wheelman who proclaims he can drive anything and then gets that boast put to the test when the boys shove him behind the stick of a helicopter. Sand is the explosives expert and the best impressionist and actor in the group and he has several memorable transformations.

In a better world, The Hot Rock would be revered and it signature catch phrase, "Afghanistan bananastan!" would be known the world over. But this is not that world. In this world, you've got to DVR it when it plays AMC at 6 in the morning. I advise you to do the same. Ocean's Thirteen's coming out this summer and you need to know where Soderbergh's stealing all his tricks from in advance.

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