100 Essential Action Scenes: Heists

Sound on Sight undertook a massive project, compiling ranked lists of the most influential, unforgettable, and exciting action scenes in all of cinema. There were hundreds of nominees spread across ten different categories and a multi-week voting process from 11 of our writers. The results: 100 essential set pieces, sequences, and scenes from blockbusters to cult classics to arthouse obscurities.    

Hollywood has had a long love affair with the heist sub-genre. Dating as far back as the silent film era with 1928’s Alias Jimmy Valentine, and transcending various genres like westerns (The War Wagon), war (Kelly’s Heroes) and even animation (Toy Story 3), the heist has tantalized our fantasies and outsmarted our wits for decades. Whether it’s for the very last time before retirement, gathering the gang back together for a big payday or for the thrill of pulling off the perfect robbery, all heist films share one key element: commitment to a plan. It’s this keen focus on the buildup, execution, and aftermath of the plan which keeps us coming back for more.

*****

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10. Point Break (1991) – Bodhi’s luck runs out

A perfectly executed heist scene is a fun thing to see. Like a Swiss watch, when all the pieces function with perfect precision, it goes off aces. But most movie heists rarely go that way; in the final robbery scene from Point Break, things go spectacularly wrong indeed. Up until this score, the “Ex-Presidents”—the crew of bank robbers run by surf guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze)—have performed quick, efficient bank robberies. This time however, Bodhi gets greedy, going for the safe and adding time to the clock. From there, the product hits the fan as gunfire erupts and undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is forced to choose his side. It’s an incredibly important scene, as it firmly cements the antagonistic relationship between Johnny and Bodhi. Till this point, Bodhi has almost been a hero, a somewhat sympathetic friend and mentor to Johnny. But with this scene, Bodhi crosses a line that puts him and Johnny firmly on opposite sides and sets them on the path for the final confrontation of the film. Like many great “heist gone wrong” sequences, everything comes down to luck and greed, and the events of the scene define the rest of the film. Greed takes over, and there’s no going back. (Thomas O’Connor)

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as Cobb in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film “Inception,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

9. Inception (2010) – Heist within a heist

Inception may be one of the most high concept blockbusters of the 21st century, but at its core it is nothing more than a heist movie. Christopher Nolan understands this and opens the film with an effective, low-key heist that doubles as an introduction to the film’s high-concepts. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are trying to steal secrets from Saito (Ken Wantanabe) when it is revealed that–twist!–all the parties are actually stuck within a dream. After the dream world collapses, Cobb comes back into the real world to interrogate Saito about the pilfered file, when it is revealed that–twist again!–what we’ve assumed is the real world is actually itself a dream, a dream within a dream! In this sequence, Nolan layers all the rules for the rest of the movie–the riot approaching the apartment in the first level is the dream falling apart, Cobb falling into the bathtub shows how what happens to a body while it’s dreaming effects the dream world, the song is introduced to alert the team to the end of the dream, the varying speeds of a ticking watch explains the different ways time is perceived in a dream–and all of it is done without a word of dialogue. The entire world of the movie is set up in the first ten minutes, leaving us salivating for the rest of the film to explore all the ways in which these new dream worlds can be manipulated. (JJ Perkins)

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8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Cover of darkness

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a movie about seeing in the dark. Jessica Chastain’s Maya doggedly pursues a lead that may or may not be anything. Any breakthrough she and her CIA counterparts do attain is really just a fragment of something that could be real intelligence. And though we know how the Seal Team Six raid plays out, Bigelow continues to keep us in the dark. The raid itself composes the last half hour or so of the film, and it encompasses everything the movie has been to this point: precise, patient, observant, and most of all, hazy and dark. It also follows the quintessential mechanics of a heist: plotting, planning, subterfuge, breaking in, grabbing the score (in this case, Bin Laden’s body and other valuable intel), covering tracks (via blowing up a helicopter), and making a getaway. Bigelow’s camera behaves as another operative, complete with on the ground and in the air POVs and stark green night vision. The ensuing firefight isn’t action heavy or violent but full of sharp, disturbing pops and blasts of gunfire and detonating charges. When the soldiers reach their “possible jackpot,” they have a sense of awe at what they’ve accomplished. Even the camera doesn’t want to say it for “certain.” But we got him. (Brian Welk)

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7. The Dark Knight (2008) – Five clowns enter a bank…

Five men in clown masks enter a bank. Each one is assigned a specific task, and when that task is completed, each is executed in turn by another. Finally, only one clown is left standing, and he peels off his mask to reveal a mask of a different sort, before disappearing into a crowd with all the stolen money for himself. This is our introduction to Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan’s Joker, a man who claims to be an avatar of chaos but who seemingly plots out his moves with meticulous detail. It’s a stunning introduction to this new take on one of fiction’s all time great villains, revealing him to be cunning, intelligent, merciless, and a little bit nuts. The entire opening sequence functions as a short film unto itself (it was screened as a teaser in IMAX theaters before the release of the film). By the time it’s over, before the title character has even appeared or the film’s overall plot is revealed, the audience has an undeniable sense of the story’s antagonist, that this will be his film as much as it is Batman’s. (Austin Gorton)

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6. Le Cercle Rouge (1970) – Circle of greed

Years before Michael Mann made men of scrupulous methodologies and codes de rigueur for the action film, Jean-Pierre Melville’s French thrillers mixed noir stylization with clinical detachment. Le Cercle Rouge might be his best work, centering on an epic jewel heist by a newly paroled thief (Alain Delon), an escaped murderer (Gian-Maria Volonte), and an ex-cop (Yves Montand). This ragtag group pulls off the film’s 25 minute opus, an almost real time fencing of valuable jewelry. Melville films the scene in near-silence with our protagonists slinking through the shadows, eluding detection by guards, and remaining near-invisible even to viewers. No gun play or disguises for these guys, just an incredible mix of stealth and cleverness. In an age of glossing over the details and getting straight to the action, few scenes compare. (Chris Saunders)

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5. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011) – Scaling the Burj Khalifa

Tom Cruise pulls off his greatest stunt yet in the fourth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Hoping to intercept the sale of nuclear launch codes, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team must break into the servers of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in order to orchestrate a ruse between the buyers. It’s a simple heist on paper but executed in the most amazing way possible, with Hunt having to scale the building from the outside, equipped only with adhesive gloves. The stakes continually pile on: one glove malfunctions; an incoming sandstorm cuts the window of time in half; the server room is locked from the outside, forcing Hunt to improvise an exit. What follows is one of the wildest stunts in recent film history. Hunt straps himself to a fire hose and repels down the building before leaping to the safety of his team’s floor. Director Brad Bird milks the scale of this setting for all its worth, never belittling the danger of the stunt. What makes the scene truly exciting is that there is no green screen. Cruise goes the extra mile as a performer, solidifying his place as the greatest movie star on the planet. (Dylan Griffin)

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4. Mission: Impossible (1996)Suspended suspense

A good heist is designed to make you hold your breath. Brian De Palma’s 1996 adaptation of famed 60’s TV show, Mission:Impossible, did just that by elevating the heist to absurd levels of peril. This is no ordinary score orchestrated by petty crooks, rather a highly coordinated theft by our good guys: disavowed spies who are desperate to clear their names. Let by brash Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise on the list again, never better), their target is the Fort Knox of government buildings: CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Their mission: download a confidential NOC list containing the true identities of active undercover agents in the hope of luring out a mole. Their plan: suspend Ethan above the secret vault computer. As Hunt clarifies, “It’s much worse than you think.” Screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne ingeniously layer the obstacles. The room temperature must not exceed 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The room decibel level must not go above a whisper. The lowly intelligence agent guarding the list must be kept out of the room (via some bad coffee). It’s a wordless sequence made all the more gripping by its aural and visual details. Every sound becomes a weapon: the pull of a cable, the echo of a locking door, a sneeze. And any disruption to the vault’s delicate ecosystem—by something as small as a bead of sweat no less—could spell certain doom. It’s a heist that denies the audience the tension-breaking comfort of sweating and exhaling alongside the thieves. (Shane Ramirez)

heat heist

3. Heat (1995) – L.A. takedown

Few directors can match the meticulously conceived details of a Michael Mann heist, and the opening armored car takedown is just one more highlight of the action auteur’s career. Fans must have seen the semi-truck backing up under the bridge and wondered what exactly the director was going to do with it, but I doubt many anticipated that the semi would slam into the armored truck to knock it over. The operation, like all of Neil McCauley’s (Robert DeNiro) ops, should be in-and-out with no problems, but the addition of a wildcard, Waingro (Kevin Gage), has the crew on edge. McCauley knows he has three minutes before the heat is right on top of them so he acts quickly, stealing the bearer bonds of noted drug money launderer, Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner). The bonds are in-hand when McCauley is ready to roll, but then Waingro screws everything up by killing one of the guards, making an already tense situation much worse. Each second that ticks by is the heat moving closer and closer, until Mann releases the tension: the crew executes the other two hostages, ensuring no living witnesses. In an instant, a robbery becomes a homicide. It’s the inventiveness of the semi, the expert use of the wildcard, and using the heist to establish the movie’s antagonists that made Heat a hit in 1995, and history will continue to remember this scene kindly for it. (Colin Biggs)

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2. Rififi (1955) — Art of the steal

One of the all-time greatest heist films, Jules Dassin’s Rififi was an international hit and earned Dassin the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The noir tale of an ex-con (Tony le Stéphanois) being lured into a heist by his close friends becomes legendary through its dazzling, 33-minute safe cracking sequence in the center of the story—a meticulous jewelry store burglary that occupies about a quarter of the running time and is conducted in almost complete silence, without dialogue or music. Any tap, bang, cough, or sneeze can give away the criminal’s activity; even the plaster being chipped away from the ceiling is caught by using an umbrella turned upside down. The construction and detail of the heist is so meticulous that the film was banned in some countries because of a series of copy-cat burglaries world-wide. Rififi is a masterpiece; a seminal, thoroughly detailed chronicle of a flawless crime undone by the flaws of man’s greed and envy. (Ricky D)

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1. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)Three times the score

A much cooler feature than the 1960 Rat Pack version, Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake is boosted by its A-list ensemble cast. Convicted thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney), his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt) and their nine accomplices plan to simultaneously rob three casinos, conveniently owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), making them $160m richer in the process. The heist slowly unfolds, taking place on a Vegas fight night between Lennox Lewis and Jim Lampley, and shows two weeks of painstaking planning bar a couple of obstacles such as city technicians (causing the group to steal a ‘pinch’) and Ocean’s estranged wife/Benedict’s girlfriend, Tess (Julia Roberts). Soderbergh crafts the entire heist to cover various eventualities and while twists and turns come into play, such as the unexpected appearance of Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner)’s old friend and Yen (Qin Shaobo) risking being blown up due to a stray bandage, everything feels like puzzle pieces coming together rather than game pieces shuffling on a board. Every character in the gang is used to some effect, giving each of them an opportunity to shine, even Livingston Dell (Eddie Jamison), who spends most of the heist stuck behind a computer. The collective achievements of the group produce a result that is entertaining and much more satisfying than Lewis Milestone’s 1960 feature. (Katie Wong)

 

Top Choices from our Writers

Colin Biggs – Heat

Christopher Clemente – Ocean’s Eleven

Ricky D – Rififi

Austin Gorton – The Thomas Crown Affair (1995)

Dylan Griffin – Le Circle Rouge

Thomas O’Connor – Le Rififi

JJ Perkins – Ocean’s Eleven

Shane Ramirez – Mission: Impossible

Christopher Saunders – Le Cercle Rouge

Brian Welk – Psycho

Katie Wong – Ocean’s Eleven

(Check out the rest of the list by clicking below)

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