Heist and prison movies make a comeback

Tue Jul 29, 2008 2:53am EDT
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By Steven Zeitchik

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If you're watching a Hollywood movie and a young couple on a transcontinental railroad trip gets involved in a murder, or a ragtag band of thieves plans the perfect heist, or hardened criminals scheme to break out of a tightly guarded prison, you're probably watching a Hollywood movie from another era.

Thirty years ago or more, studios turned out pictures in these golden genres like Hebrew National turns out hot dogs. They made heist pictures like "Rififi" and prison movies like "Escape From Alcatraz" and train mysteries like "Murder on the Orient Express" (along with scores of lesser efforts).

But like all Hollywood trends, what goes around comes around, or at least gets remade as a European art house film. After decades of neglect, these classic genres -- as well as Westerns, now reimagined and reinvigorated in such movies as "Brokeback Mountain" and "3:10 to Yuma" -- are enjoying something of a resurgence.

So far in 2008, Demi Moore and Michael Caine have teamed to rip off a diamond vault in "Flawless," Jason Statham got the gang together to pull a big score in "The Bank Job," and Ben Kingsley and Emily Mortimer can be found at the local art house dancing around secrets in Brad Anderson's train murder-mystery "Transsiberian." In the fall, Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes will tunnel their way out of a London penitentiary in "The Escapist."

These are welcome developments for those who appreciate classic Hollywood storytelling. But they don't account for the unavoidable question: How did this sudden bout of nostalgia come to be?

There's a timeless appeal to some of these genres, of course -- "Hollywood ignores them at their peril," Mortimer said in a recent interview. And in a sense, these genres never really went away; the past 15 years, for instance, saw these classic tales told via modern renditions, in prison fairy tales like "The Shawshank Redemption" and the heist-movie postmodernism of "Sexy Beast."

But the surge in these throwbacks is undeniable. More important, so is the emergence of a common denominator: their distribution. These films all come from mini-majors or indies -- such outfits as Lionsgate, First Look, Magnolia and ThinkFilm. Studios haven't tried much in these realms recently, and when they do, it's not so much about genre as it is about elements (for instance, the "Ocean's" franchise, whose main goal was to unite stars and whose characters just as easily could have been engaged in other activities besides planning a heist).

That these movies are being released by independent companies is no accident. As studios have vacated many of their previous go-to genres in favor of the comic book and broad-comedy business, others have seen an opportunity and stepped into the void. Assuming a reasonable budget -- necessary given the production and distribution economics and the movies' more circumscribed audience -- these companies have picked up the slack studios no longer seem willing or able to carry.   Continued...

<p>Actor Jason Statham (R) and actress Saffron Burrows arrive for a screening of the film "The Bank Job" in New York March 3, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>