“You’re marking time is what you are. You’re backing off. You’re hiding out. You’re waiting for a bus that you hope never comes because you dont wanna get on it anyway because you don’t wanna go anywhere. Ok?”
When I wrote about Manhunter, I said, “Michael Mann is possibly the most 80s director of the 80s”. Well, if anyone ever challenges me on that statement, all I need to do is point them in the direction of the Mann movie that kicked off the decade, the James Caan starring Thief.
Caan is Frank, a crook with a code. He has a strict set of rules he refuses to bend and is on the lookout for that one last, big score that will let him settle down and leave this life behind forever. So of course, all of that turns to shit the closer he comes to his dream, and the less likely it seems Frank will ever actually get there.
But before all of that, you get the good stuff. A cool heist sequence, hard boiled, steel eyed professionals who don’t have any time or patience for amateurs. And you get Willy Nelson. Can he act? Not really. Does that matter? Not in the least. He plays Caan’s mentor and father figure, and his shifty eyed awkwardness in front of the camera entertained me the entire time Nelson was on the screen.
After pulling off an impressive heist, Caan is recruited by Leo (Robert Prosky) for that one last job that will make them all rich. Leo initially seems like a sweet, old, cuddly grandpa type, so obviously it’s only a matter of time before he shows his true, monstrous colours. Even though that’s telegraphed from the second he appears, it’s still great to watch it happen.
Frank’s world is rounded out by Jim Belushi as his thieving colleague Barry, and the love his life, Tuesday Wells as Jessie. It really says something about the calibre of characters populating a movie when the hero buys a black market baby, and he’s still the clear hero. These are some low life losers, and Caan makes Frank a surprisingly likable low life loser.
The robberies are the perfect combination of gritty brute force and feather light precision. The dialogue is just the right amount of pulpy cool. James Caan chews plenty of scenery, but never too much. And when he decides on a scorched earth approach to tying up loose ends, I defy anyone to not cheer him on in his sociopathic blitzkrieg of revenge.
Michael Mann is the 80s. His lighting and music always work to make the fashions, sets and locations seem like an almost fantasy version of the period when everything was just that little bit more. More fluorescently lit, more electronic without yet becoming computerised. More artificial in that way when no one had learned to hide the artifice very well yet.
Watching Thief, it made me think of another defining moment in 80s cinema, Lethal Weapon. As much as I love the first two movies in that franchise, James Caan and everything one else in Thief made me think Riggs and Murtaugh wouldn’t last five minutes in Mann’s version of the period. Characters like Frank and Leo are too professional, too busy getting the job and too smart to ever pop up on the radar of some local detectives.