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Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight

By Karl Williams · September 5, 2023

Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight_feature

“Living vicariously.” You’ve heard the expression. It means to experience something through the eyes of another, indirectly. This concept is kind of a big deal when it comes to movies — it’s a huge part of why we like them. Living vicariously through movie characters, we can experience so many things, including getting away with stuff we’d never get away with in real life — like a heist. So, of course we have to talk about heist movies.

Just imagine: Stealing from a casino and escaping to Tahiti! Robbing Fort Knox and buying the Vatican! Swapping Russia’s crown jewels with fakes in mid-air aboard Air Force One!

Fine, those weren’t all winners, but they are examples of ideas for HEIST MOVIES.

Here, in a rigorously scientific, algorithm and artificial intelligence-driven process that shall not be questioned, are 10 thrilling scripts from great heist movies.

Drum roll, please… (Shhh! Stop it with that drum, do you want the cops to hear us?!)

The Usual Suspects (1995)

One of the most memorable twists in cinema history caps off this indie thriller that launched the careers of both Bryan Singer of X-Men fame and current Mission: Impossible franchise director Christopher McQuarrie.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: It’s surprising how few heist movies are told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. Feels like that should be a pretty common element in a heist flick, right? Despite its surprising rarity, an especially, delightfully unreliable narrator is what we get here with Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint, a disabled con man under interrogation about the ripoff-gone-wrong that has resulted in most of the other major characters’ deaths.

Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Verbal spins a complex web of a story involving cocaine, gems, revenge and the lurking presence of never-seen Turkish crime czar Keyser Söze, whose reputation very much precedes him. The film’s continued prestige (despite Roger Ebert legendarily hating it) over relies on a “big twist” ending, but its brain-teaser plot and goofball characters (Benicio del Toro’s marble-mouthed Fred Fenster is just one other highlight) make this a fun re-watch. Probably the best concept on the list, too: five crooks who meet in a police lineup get into a caper that’s way over their pay grades, an idea inspired by a line from Casablanca. Winner of Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Spacey) and Best Original Screenplay (McQuarrie).

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Heat (1995)

The movie world got what it wanted in this taut, emotionally wrenching thriller that finally brings Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together in a quiet powerhouse showdown scene that pits two total acting kaiju against each other — over coffee.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Overlooking a couple of crime movie tropes (the new guy blows it; the protagonist is trying to assemble a fortune so he can put his past in the rearview mirror), the central storyline is gripping and smart. De Niro’s crew, including Val Kilmer in one of his best performances as the outfit’s number two, Chris, are total pros, and their “gigs” feel like real-life heists that just might have worked.

A bank robbery ends in a running shootout as wildly compelling as any Western climax. (I know, I know, I said no bank robbery movies! But there’s more than a bank robbery going on here, there are also — checks notes — bearer bonds, precious metals and a serial killer…there’s a LOT).

Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight

Heat (1995)

What sticks with the viewer more strongly than the narrative, however, is the underlying tortured emotions here, nuanced and beautifully played by a terrific ensemble cast. Pacino’s failing marriage and suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), a gut-wrenching sacrifice by Kilmer’s Chris, and the tender, heartbreakingly doomed romance of De Niro’s Neal and his lovely girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman) create a dark, broken, melancholy backdrop that guarantees whoever triumphs in the end, nobody is really going to win.

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Jackie Brown (1997)

While the film that put Quentin Tarantino on the map, Reservoir Dogs, is technically a heist picture, the heist isn’t really a huge part of the story (we never actually see it). That’s why my QT heist pic…er, pick…is Jackie Brown.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: This blaxploitation homage resurrected the career of one of that B-movie genre’s biggest stars, Pam Grier, with a plot that mashes together elements of Coffy and Foxy Brown (hence the same last name) with Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch and a singular tone for a Tarantino film: Jackie Brown has a shaggy-dog, beach-bum, laid-back vibe that’s an unexpected delight.

Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight

Jackie Brown (1997)

Read More: Exploring Hollywood’s Fascination with Elmore Leonard

You have never seen (nor probably ever will) Robert De Niro so chill and I still wonder exactly how stoned Bridget Fonda was in all of her scenes (either that, or she’s just really good at “show me stoned”). The heist itself is a taxonomy tree of everyone flimflamming everyone else, orbiting around gun smuggler and remorseless killer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) and a large shipment of cash he’s expecting, inspiring Jackie to come up with a retirement plan but also drawing the interest of the ATF, whose agent Ray Nicolette is played both here and in Out of Sight by Michael Keaton.

As of this writing, Jackie Brown is still Tarantino’s only adaptation of someone else’s writing, but it’s considered the best of the over two dozen adaptations of Leonard’s work by none other than the author himself. JB is a mellow treat with delightful twists and a palpable romantic spark between Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, whose career also received a big boost here, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor).

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Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

One of the two titles on this list is a remake of an earlier heist picture. In both cases, I think the remake is better than the original (sorry, purists). There are so many treasures in this update of a just-okay Frank Sinatra / Rat Pack movie.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Director Steven Soderbergh’s zippy, energetic, but very dry comic tone. The protagonist’s “make it personal” quest (yes, Danny Ocean wants to steal $160 million from casino owner Terry Benedict…but what he *really* wants is his ex-wife Tess back, and she just so happens to be Terry’s current girlfriend; total coincidence!).

Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

The constant snacking of Rusty Ryan (who would not, with this many carbs, look anything like Brad Pitt IRL. Trust me on this). The heist is so complicated and high-end that it requires the thieves to secure a loan — they need to borrow money to steal money (now THAT is pure capitalism).

It’s a triple heist involving a heavyweight title bout, three different casino basements and a very bendy gymnast. And just character, character, character all day long. So much fun that the heist almost doesn’t matter, Ocean’s Eleven was one of the biggest blockbusters on this list, spawning two sequels and a spin-off.

Read More: Vegas Movies: A 20 Year Fascination with Sin City

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The Italian Job (2003)

The second remake on this list, although this one is only marginally an actual remake, deviating wildly from the source film. Really, all it retains from the 1969 original is revenge, Mini Coopers and a sense of visual style. But director F. Gary Gray executes it all with the same jokey, witty energy as Ocean’s Eleven.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Early career Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Mos Def and Taryn Manning should be enough for any of us. A plot that really maximizes its knowledge of the Los Angeles mass transit infrastructure system (like all great films do). A movie that wisely casts, “Don’t we all want to punch him in the face, really?” actor Ed Norton as the Big Bad. And the object of the heist (checks notes): gold bullion. Then as now, super easy to unload, I’m sure! Never, not for one minute, boring.

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Inception (2010)

Let’s be honest here. I don’t know what this movie is about. I mean, I do. I do know what’s about. I do. But like, I don’t know what it’s about. I just know I really, really liked it. People stealing intellectual property from each other’s dreams. What? Best heist concept ever. See, I get it. But also, no I don’t, and that’s pretty much the point of a Christopher Nolan movie. You’re not SUPPOSED to totally get it. You’re supposed to come back with a flashlight and a little dry-erase board and make flow charts and ultimately get it, like maybe more than your MOM did, but still not actually get it.

So…WHY IT MADE THE LIST: This might be just a “me” thing, but I’m a sucker for “stories that are super open to interpretation.” Nothing more so than the infamous spinning-top ending here. What does it mean? If you think there’s a definitive right answer, you’ve been suckered into Nolan’s creative/narrative heist already. You got “incepted.” The heist is on YOU.

Heist Movies That Totally Steal the Spotlight

Inception (2010)

You’re watching a movie about brain hijackers while your brain’s getting hijacked. Inception means what you think it means, like all of life. BOOM, existential crisis! Also: riveting direction and performances. Besides Leo D., it’s also got Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy (future Oppenheimer himself), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliott Page, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Lukas Haas… this cast just keeps on going (like an endlessly spinning top, get it). But it’s honestly that “dream within a dream within a bending reality within a you’re-probably-inventing-this-as-much-as-we-are within a…wait, is heartbreak just a thing we create?!” structure that is a heist-movie and philosopher’s chef’s kiss. 

Read More: 5 Plot Points of Inception

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Drive (2011)

Takes the prize for Best Soundtrack of any heist film I can think of. I am not the only writer I know who has Cliff Martinez’s score on heavy rotation for writing inspiration.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Nicholas Winding Refn’s super-slick, retro ’80s look and feel recalls Michael Mann’s superb Thief; Ryan Gosling’s performance calls out every Steve McQueen movie. Except (and here I will brace for the onslaught of ire), I think Gosling’s a quite similar but way better actor than McQueen — more humorous, more human, less concerned about his clothes, as far as I can tell. Also: I bet you forgot this movie costar Carey Mulligan. And Oscar Issac. And Bryan Cranston. And Albert Brooks. And Christina Hendricks. And Russ Tamblyn. There’s a reason they all said Yes: a terrific script and superlative work from a Cannes “Best Director.”

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Hell or High Water (2016)

Easily the saddest, darkest and most dramatic title on the list, this script is peak Taylor Sheridan (creator of Yellowstone). The seemingly simple bank-robbery plot (Hey! That’s not a heist — except, wait for it… there’s more) unpeels in heartbreaking layers that are suddenly profoundly topical yet subtly crafted.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Did I mention that script? Read it. Career-high performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and (this is really saying something) Jeff Bridges. One of those movies that is already riveting way before it reveals what’s really going on, which is a gut punch. And then get that gut ready because more punches are coming. Every character is meticulously thought-out. You’ve got to appreciate plot details that are so smart — a feeling of, “Okay, but how would someone REALLY do this?” when most crime films settle for tropes and clichés. Laconic characters and locations but edge-of-your-seat storytelling.

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Baby Driver (2017)

This heist flick’s DNA is shared across a few other titles on the list: Like The Usual Suspects, it’s got Kevin Spacey as a sketchy baddie. Like Drive, it’s got a pro-wheelman and a fascination with ’80s style at its core. And also like both Drive and The Italian Job, automotive ability is clutch to the plot. Baby Driver pairs up nicely as a double feature with any of the above.

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Miles, nicknamed “Baby,” is a gifted getaway driver who masks his severe tinnitus with ever-present earbuds that blast a non-stop stream of rock and pop into his ears while he’s outpacing the police. He’s kind of an Uber driver to thieves and robbers. Baby glimpses a normal life just within reach: he’s falling in love with diner waitress Debora (Lily James) and he *thinks* he’s nearly done paying off a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal kingpin who masterminds big-payday robberies.

Read More: How To: Baby Driver Opening Sequence

Baby, however, has apparently never seen a crime thriller because as we all could tell him, there’s no getting out of “the life.” Pulled back in for one last score against his will, Baby’s about to watch everything come unglued in bloody, 100-mph fashion. Stylishly directed with whipsaw camera moves and meticulous editing and composition by Edgar Wright, Baby Driver is the music-obsessed, first-time-puppy-loving little brother of Drive. Jon Hamm, usually such an affable presence, is completely terrifying as a homicidal maniac with whom Baby gets his wires tragically crossed.

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Widows (2018)

The *other* Steve McQueen (the director of 12 Years a Slave, not the late actor) guides this seemingly simple narrative to a place that reminds us how the greatest heist pictures typically feature revenge, betrayals, and the wild plot twists that result. Women take the reigns when their men, a ring of Chicago thieves, screw the pooch and get their numbers punched by the police. Now in debt for millions, they find themselves on the hook to finance a crooked crime boss’s political campaign by stealing millions from his blue-blooded opponent. WHY IT MADE THE LIST: In a gender-reversal over the typical heist film, the leads are Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki, while the supporting players are Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall. McQueen’s direction is, as always, reliably tight and visually exciting, and the cast is an epic lineup that ALSO includes Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Hendry, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal and Garret Dillahunt, which sounds like the lead cast of a different, equally great film. So this is LOADED. But it’s that magnificent script and its crusher of a twist that really puts Widows on the map as the most recent great heist picture on the list.

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Karl Williams is a screenwriting instructor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, blogs about screenwriting, and co-hosts the screenwriting advice podcast Get Your Story Straight.

Scripts from this Article