There’s always going to be something compelling about a crew pulling off an elaborate theft onscreen. Heist movies have suspense, stakes, and conflict baked into the structure. It’s why the format has survived and thrived well into the 21st century. (This weekend, in fact, sees the release of King of Thieves).
But it wasn’t easy: Over the last two decades, studio output evolved, homogenized, and pushed mid-market adult fare like crime and romance toward extinction. Yet the heist movie lasted for a variety of reasons, not least of all the fact that the template itself is alluring. In the movies, the characters pulling off these daring acts of grand theft aren’t just gimme-your-wallet punks, but something more elevated. They have a clear goal, often one with a higher significance. They’re problem solvers, usually smarter than the audiences they’re daring to keep up. In short, characters in a heist movie are figures audiences can admire on the screen.
And perhaps the biggest reason the heist film has continued to endure to this day has to do with a 2001 film called Ocean’s Eleven, which represented everything that’s good about the form.
Written by Ted Griffin and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the Ocean’s Eleven remake was cool, fun, energetic, and had more stars than could reasonably fit on a poster. And in December of 2001, it was a massive hit, making $450 million worldwide and cracking the top ten domestic earners for the year, just ahead of Jurassic Park III. The ripple effect caused by the movie’s success is undeniable; it went on to include much more than the two direct sequels and 2018’s all-female side-quel, Ocean’s Eight. In the eyes of the studios, Ocean’s Eleven became the template for what a marketable and bankable heist movie should look like in the 21st century. But in the nearly 17 years since, that model has barely been updated.
To understand what made Ocean’s so special at the time, it’s worth examining the state of the genre at the time of its release. With the crime-movie boom of the early ’90s, brought on largely by the rise of Tarantino and the one-two punch of Goodfellas and Casino from Scorsese, crooks and thieves were in vogue. Out of that came a string of pulpy, populist masterpieces, like L.A. Confidential, Fargo, and Michael Mann’s heist opera, Heat. The worldviews were bleak and violent, but an adherence to gritty realism allowed the stories to become about something more than cops and robbers.
By the turn of the century, however, the cinematic crime wave was slowing down, and heist movies went with it. Movies like Donnie Brasco, The Big Hit, and the Stallone-starring Get Carter remake came and went without much notice. Most tellingly, Tarantino’s 1997 effort, the underrated Jackie Brown, did less than half the business of Pulp Fiction in the States. As for the heist, the news wasn’t much better; a David Mamet movie that was called Heist couldn’t break even at the box office. Things didn’t look great.
Then Danny Ocean got out of prison.
Soderbergh’s Ocean’s recaptured some of the Leonard verve from his previous Out of Sight and the same reverence for New Hollywood cool of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but it felt entirely fresh in 2001. The daring plan to rob three casinos at once is certainly dangerous, but Danny Ocean (Clooney) never really sweats it. His eyes are on recapturing the heart of his wife, played by Julia Roberts. More than anything Ocean’s Eleven is a joy. These characters are likable and like each other. They seem to have fun doing their job. The same could be said for the actors onscreen.
And the studios paid attention. Eleven’s success coincided with a sea change in studio filmmaking. It hit theaters on December 7, 2001, less than a month after the first Harry Potter film and 12 days before Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. X-Men, the year before, and Spider-Man, the year after, form the foundation of what would become a full-on superhero wave by the end of the decade. The kinds of movies being put out by these major corporations were becoming less varied, and adult-focused fare, like crime films and rom-coms, was about to become more scarce.
But Ocean’s defied the calculations of studios that were starting to value intellectual property and brand awareness above all. Sure, there was the original Rat Pack film, but Ocean’s wasn’t a smash because of people’s fond memories of Frank, Dean, and Sammy. It was that alchemical mix of genuine stars, confident filmmaking, and the ability to dazzle.
What followed was a generation of movies looking to replicate its tone, with mixed success. A rash of heist movies followed that lifted the Ocean’s-y setup (stars making sarcastic quips as they pulled off a low-stakes heist) followed. There’s 2004’s The Perfect Score, which follows pre-Marvel Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans attempting to steal SAT answers. The Italian Job and Going in Style also looked to the heist history for remake fodder. Now You See Me kept the Vegas and added magic tricks — sorry, illusions. Mad Money had the unlikely grouping of Diane Keaton, Katie Holmes, and Queen Latifah ripping off the federal reserve. Tower Heist even brought in Ted Griffin himself as one of its writers. Marvel got in on the action and made a heist the centerpiece of Ant-Man. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver set itself apart with some stellar direction and pop scoring, but it was a movie that audiences were largely primed for due to the Ocean’s trilogy.
None of this is to say that these movies are bad or rote rip-offs by virtue of their riding Ocean’s wake. But the trend points to an unmistakable shift: the industry deciding that a heist movie must conform to a certain tone. Unlike the violent crime films of the ’90s, this crop was light, nonviolent, and jokey — material designed to find a home in all four quadrants. And as studios pumped out more and more of them, the genre by and large grew stale. Ironically, the Ocean’s effect eventually came to claim the Ocean’s franchise itself: By the time Warner Bros. rebooted the series with Ocean’s Eight, audiences and critics seemed to have had enough. Though the film, receiving lukewarm reviews, made a respectable $140 million at the U.S. box office, the total marked a low for the series, once adjusted for inflation. (That figure, however, isn’t adjusted for misogyny, which was undoubtedly a factor.)
So what happened? The Sandra Bullock–led side-quel had a killer cast, Soderbergh on as producer, and his good friend Gary Ross directing. It’s fun, the performances are strong, everybody seems to get along. Rihanna plays a hacker named Nine Ball!
The movie also completely lacked stakes. Never once does it feel like everything could go badly and that these people’s lives would effectively be over. At least Eleven had Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict. The crew in Eight are just trying to rip off Cartier. The closest thing to an antagonist is played by human teddy bear James Corden. Ross’s direction doesn’t bring any style to it that wasn’t already there in Eleven, 17 years earlier. The whole thing came off as a soulless re-creation of past successes with no desire to innovate or differentiate itself.
While light capers became the dominant form of studio heist movies, a few grimmer yarns sneaked through elsewhere. Inside Man was a massive commercial hit for Spike Lee. People started to take Ben Affleck seriously again after The Town. And Hell or High Water notched four Oscar nods. Each of these movies has its own merits, but their accolades feel at least in part indebted to the fact that they went against the popular strain. Had they been released a generation ago, they may have been viewed as just another solid action flick, but nothing to call home (or the Academy) about.
And then came Widows. The Steve McQueen–directed BBC mini-series remake he wrote with Gillian Flynn won over critics, but flopped with audiences in such an extreme fashion that it’s actually head-scratching. Here was a movie with an acting lineup so strong that to call it “star-studded” seems weak. Widows is ambitious in its view of a modern Chicago — possibly overreaching at points — but its twists and design are meant for the mainstream. In theory, it’s exactly the kind of movie that should’ve re-reinvigorated the heist movie, breaking the mundanity of Ocean-ism circa 2018. Except it didn’t.
The financial disappointment of a movie can be picked apart infinitely, but in this case, a lot it seemed to come down to marketing — namely, the struggle to understand how to sell a heist movie with a social conscience from an Oscar-winning filmmaker. Or perhaps both audiences and studios simply forgot what a heist movie can be — that it isn’t defined by a specific tone or style. When big-screen thefts have all been fun and games for nearly 20 years, the dire economic inequality of Chicago doesn’t easily fit into that equation. A night at the Bellagio this wasn’t.
Ocean’s happened to hit at the exact right time to convince the industry that the heist movie could still be profitable — and the wrongheaded notion that only heist movies like it could succeed. Of course, the genre is much too rich to be hemmed in by any one template, and it’ll certainly outlive the trends of the day. Heist movies can be hilarious, depressing, gritty, light, anxiety-inducing, sexy, or none of the above. The only thing they really need is a crew, a job, and a plan.