The Last Score
Hollywood has long made use of the One Last Big Score storyline because even though it's as predictable as apple pie, it helps make films as varied as Unforgiven, Heat and Entrapment work. In fact, some other genres could benefit from this tried-and-true structure--it sure would breathe life into anything starring Woody Allen or Kristin Scott Thomas.
Two years ago, film lovers everywhere clawed their way into movie houses to see the high-tech thriller Entrapment. It could be argued that this globe-trotting saga of two high-class thieves hell-bent on setting the world's record for the biggest heist became a hit because it included a scene in which the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones writhed, squirmed and wriggled her way through a maze of motion sensors while Sean Connery looked on, amused by the gyrations of the woman in the skintight bodysuit. But the main reason this film was a crowd- pleaser was that it used a near fail-safe storyline--the One Last Big Score.
These days, multiplexes are suddenly bursting at the seams with films about that One Last Big Score. In 2001 alone, we have been treated to such fare as The Mexican, in which Brad Pitt plays an inept thug forced to pull off one last heist south of the border before being allowed to retire from organized crime; Blow, in which Johnny Depp plays a charismatic cocaine dealer forced to pull off one last drug run in order to raise lunch money for his daughter; Swordfish, in which überhacker Hugh Jackman has to pull off one last cybergeek job in order to make enough money to retire in style; and The Score, in which Robert De Niro plays the conflicted owner of a Montreal jazz club who decides to pull off one last robbery before settling down with Angela Bassett, a comely fellow habitant, who as a matter of principle does not approve of criminal behavior. At least not in a husband.
That's without even mentioning Heist, in which Gene Hackman plays a jewel thief planning one last job, and the long-awaited remake of the 1960 Rat Pack caper Ocean's 11, in which a bunch of retired GIs reunite to pull off one last heist before riding off into the sunset. Actually, I can't imagine why director Steven Soderbergh would want to remake this "classic," which is one of the few One Last Big Score films that suck beyond belief. Featuring a smirking Frank Sinatra, a distracted Dean Martin, an inert Peter Lawford, the reliably loathsome Sammy Davis Jr. and a battalion of cheesy farts headed by the troika of Joey Bishop, Cesar Romero and Akim Tamiroff, Ocean's 11 is lazy, obvious, tedious, phoned-in twaddle.
A case can be made that we are now living in a golden age of One Last Big Score movies. Gone in 60 Seconds starred Nicolas Cage as a retired car thief who must pull off one last mega-boost in order to keep his brother and protégé Giovanni Ribisi from being crushed in a trash compactor by a surly British gangster and part-time woodworker with the unlikely nickname of The Carpenter. Out of Sight brought us George Clooney as a career bank robber who decides to crack one last safe so that he can raise enough money to retire to a desert island and spend all his time ogling Jennifer Lopez's remarkable buttocks. And in The Tailor of Panama, top-flight spy Pierce Brosnan accepts a humiliating posting in the tropics in the hopes of making enough of a killing to retire forever, possibly to the same island as Clooney. Toss in such recent films as Sexy Beast, The Limey and Space Cowboys, not to mention relatively new fare like Unforgiven, Heat, Grosse Pointe Blank, The Killer and Midnight Run, and it is not going too far to say that never in the course of human events have so many car thieves, second-story men, drug dealers, safecrackers, hired killers, scamsters, con artists, shady operators, flim-flam men and menopausal cowpokes been so determined to pull off one last job before going gently into that good night.
As a person who grew up on such unsurpassedly brilliant Big Score movies as the riveting Rififi, the inspirational Behold a Pale Horse and the peerless The Wild Bunch, I view this explosion of One Last Big Score flicks as a very positive development. While cynics might argue that Hollywood is merely churning out the same drivel over and over again in slightly different variations, I personally am bedazzled by the rich tapestry of nuances in this flotilla of One Last Big Score movies. It's also worth bearing in mind that every dollar spent making movies like The Score and Ocean's 11 is a dollar not spent making movies starring Madonna or Bette Midler. Try to look on the bright side.
In discussing One Last Big Score motion pictures, it is important to distinguish between Inadvertent One Last Big Score films, Compulsory One Last Big Score Films and Premeditated One Last Big Score Films. For example, in John Woo's electrifying 1989 release The Killer, Chow Yun-Fat plays a bloodthirsty but otherwise likable hit man who accidentally blinds a demure young cocktail singer while he is eliminating half the population of Hong Kong. Although the young woman is clearly a wonderful human being and not terribly hard to look at, she is not much of a singer, and the market for blind, timid chantoozies being what it is in Hong Kong at the time, Yun-Fat quickly recognizes that this girl has hit a career dead end.
Belatedly realizing that his profession is not all that it is cracked up to be, Yun-Fat signs up for one last job, seeking to raise $1.5 million to bankroll the blind singer's cornea transplant. But his duplicitous employers have other plans, dispatching the entire population of Mainland China to murder him. After wiping out the other half of the population of Hong Kong, plus the entire population of Mainland China, Yun-Fat dies, but not before going blind himself. Let me not mince words: I love the plot of this movie more than the rosy-tipped aureoles of dawn, more than the dew on the heather, more than the bright, elusive butterfly of love; yes, more than I love life itself. Not since Rock Hudson's spellbinding performance as a self-reinventing dickhead in Magnificent Obsession has the silver screen witnessed such an arresting portrayal of the inherent tensions that exist in any relationship between a blind young female and a penitent sociopath. Thank you, John Woo.
But to return to our central theme, Yun-Fat takes on his very last assignment as a hit man with the specific intention of retiring from a business that he now views as corrupt and seedy and riddled with structural inequities and in some ways passé. That is: He wants to get out of the business because he thinks crime is kind of gross. In this sense, Yun-Fat is very much like John Cusack as a neurotic hit man who wishes to retire from the homicide racket in Grosse Pointe Blank because he views it as a psychological cul-de-sac; and not unlike Robert De Niro as a middle-aged career criminal who has grown tired of the demands of his profession in Heat; and certainly not dissimilar to George Clooney, who wishes to take early retirement from the bank-robbing business in Out of Sight and move to a desert island where soulmate Jennifer Lopez will hopefully wear the same pink ruffled panties that she recently wore on the cover of Stuff.
For that matter, all of these characters strongly resemble the geriatric gunslingers in Sam Peckinpah's majestic postmodern oater The Wild Bunch, a passel of aging varmints and ornery ole cusses with a hankering to mosey off to another line of trade because they are getting a tad too old to annihilate the entire Mexican Army every weekend just to make ends meet come Monday, dagnabit. In each and every case, these are men who are tired of their jobs and want to make a clean break. They've had it up to here. They're fed up and they're not going to take it any more. They're stressed.
How different this is from the situation one encounters in several other One Last Big Score films. For example, in The Jackal, Bruce Willis plays a nonstop, big-ticket killing machine who actually enjoys his work and only decides to retire from the business because his latest assignment--icing the first lady of the United States--will make him so notorious that he will have to disappear forever anyway. And in The Saint, it is obvious that master thief Val Kilmer still gets a rush from his make-your-own-hours job as a second-story man, but has decided that once he hits the $50 million mark in net worth, it's counterproductive to keep putting in the long hours. It's not that he doesn't enjoy the work anymore. It just doesn't make any sense from the tax-planning point of view. 40 IK-wise, the guy is set.
An entirely different type of One Last Big Score movie is the one in which the criminals are forced by circumstances beyond their control to pull off one last heist. This is the predicament Nicolas Cage confronts in Gone in 60 Seconds, where fraternal love is the only thing that could possibly draw him back into the grand theft auto racket, though Angelina Jolie's abundant lips certainly help. It is also the predicament faced by Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast, who must drag himself out of an otherwise carefree retirement in the sunny Mediterranean and return to drab, oppressive London to pull off one last job because it is the only way to keep middle-aged Aryan Nation football hooligan Ben Kingsley from coming around the house and behaving like the world's oldest jerk-off.
Then there are the bookend Parental Custody One Last Big Score films Blow and Swordfish. In Blow, Johnny Depp plays a genuinely likable young man who has gotten into a bit of a tiff with the legal authorities because he has spent the past decade or so acting as the U.S. front man for the Medellin Cartel. Frowning on his relationship with the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the courts have denied Depp custody of his adolescent daughter, preferring to let her live with her cokehead mamasita, Penélope Cruz. Desperate to raise cash to sort out his nagging custody problems, Depp orchestrates one last cocaine-smuggling operation. Betrayed by a former henchman, a complete dork, he ends up in the slammer for life. Nonetheless, his motives were pure. As was the cocaine.
A similar situation exists in Swordfish, in which Hugh Jackman plays a recently paroled computer hacker who must emerge from retirement and pull off one last job if he is ever to obtain visitation rights to see his daughter again. Interestingly enough, parental pressures also surface in Unforgiven, starring Clint Eastwood as a retired psychopath who is such an ineffective farmer and dud father that he must briefly return to a life of crime in order to raise enough money to get out of the hog-raising racket. As in The Wild Bunch, the audience is provided with a number of subtle visual cues to indicate that the protagonist is far past his prime. Usually this involves the hero (William Holden, Eastwood) falling off his horse. Like Grandma sitting on that burning stove, these guys are just a little bit too old to ride the range.
One of the great delights in the classic One Last Big Score movie is the scene where the ringleader frantically attempts to reunite his trusty old crew. Ocean's 11 kicked things off in grand style back in 1960 with a wonderful scene in which a reluctant GI finally agrees to join his old buddies in the Crime of the Century because he wants to get his wife out of the stripping business. Unaccommodating wives also figure prominently in Gone in 60 Seconds, in which Robert Duvall plays an aging chop-shop operator whose wife wants him to go straight; in Heat, in which Ashley Judd plays a level-headed slut who wants immature criminal Val Kilmer to get a day job; and in Unforgiven, in which Morgan Freeman's Native American wife is clearly opposed to her husband's reemerging from retirement to pull off one last double murder. Freeman himself is not entirely onboard with the proposal, reminding his old partner, "Hell, Will, we ain't bad men no more. Shit, we're farmers."
In reviewing this genre, it is important to distinguish between the One Last Big Score film and the Old Coots Film. For example, despite surface familiarities to the One Last Big Score films, Space Cowboys is basically Grumpy Old Astronauts, in which four hotshots from the '50s who never got a chance to go into space now get a second chance due to a software glitch. Here the motivation is glory, not financial freedom. Much the same can be said of The Crew, in which Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds, Dan Hedaya and Seymour Cassel play persnickety old mobsters out for one last romp in a South Miami that no longer respects their gangland skills. That's right, Richard Dreyfuss as a gangster. Scary.
Even people who do not generally like One Last Big Score movies can find many things to enjoy in the films we have discussed here. Heat, the only film in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have ever appeared on-screen together, is memorable for the tension-laden diner tête-à-tête between the two sons of Little Italy. Blow is worth watching just to see Johnny Depp's amazing wigs and Paul Reubens's tongue-in-cheek turn as a gay hairdressing drug kingpin. The Jackal is notable for Jack Black's uproarious cameo as a slacker gun-turret designer, for Richard Gere's daunting Irish accent and for Willis's breathtaking collection of wigs, none more shocking than the one he wears when he picks up a future victim in a gay bar.
Wigs, accents and face-offs are by no means the only pleasures in this compendious subgenre. The Killer features more carnage per square inch than any movie I have ever seen, thanks to Chow Yun-Fat's self-reloading revolvers, which apparently hold around 3,600 rounds each. The blazing gunbattle at the end of The Wild Bunch is the most operatic shoot-'em-up in the history of motion pictures. And Space Cowboys is worth watching if only because of director Eastwood's cavalier decision to cast himself as a brilliant computer programmer. Eastwood's implausible casting in Space Cowboys is only rivaled by that of The Saint, in which the perky, knee-socks clad Elisabeth Shue plays an Oxford-based expert in cold fusion. Not since Denise Richards played a future Nobel Prize winner in The World Is Not Enough and Keanu Reeves starred as some sort of cold-fusion dude in Chain Reaction has the American scientific community taken such a beating on the silver screen.
The list of unexpected pleasures afforded by this genre goes on and on. Even The Crew, by no means one of the all-time greats in the One Last Big Score genre, has its own demure charms. For one, film buffs who have always wanted to see Burt Reynolds get his head stuck down the toilet finally get their wish. Personally speaking, I cannot understand why Mr. Reynolds would allow someone as physically unprepossessing as the diminutive Richard Dreyfuss to conduct the impromptu lavatory baptism; I thought the whole point of getting into motion pictures was so that you didn't have to get your head jammed down the toilet by people like Richard Dreyfuss. Indeed, still smarting from the pain of watching Mr. Holland's Opus at the house of a friend who is now no longer a friend, I would have much preferred to see Reynolds do the latrine work on Dreyfuss. But in this world, you can't have everything.
There is an obvious explanation for why Hollywood keeps churning out One Last Big Score movies: The public really and truly loves them. In fact, considering their appeal, it's amazing that we haven't seen more of them. For instance, who would not applaud a Cher vehicle called One Last Tea with Mussolini or a Kristin Scott Thomas outing entitled The Last English Patient? Mightn't the general public start paying attention to Merchant Ivory's dreary Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas if they threw us a curve and made a film called Grumpy Old Viscountesses, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson as a trio of dying aristocrats determined to have one final romp in Venice Beach? Last but not least, wouldn't the public applaud a movie in which Woody Allen plays a dirty old man hell-bent on kissing one more girl 50 years younger than he before retiring to the old-folks home forever? The Lolita role could be played by one of our most fetching young rock stars, a youngster who has already expressed an interest in a dramatic career. I even have a title for the film: Battle of Britney. Speaking of One Last Big Score, this is the very last article in which I make fun of Woody Allen's jailbait obsession. I'm getting too old for this. So is he.
Joe Queenan wrote about movies that provoke paranoia for the August issue of Movieline.