TIFF 2014 REVIEW: 'American Heist'


There’s a scene midway through the new film American Heist where a character named Frankie, played by (Oscar winner!) Adrien Brody, tries to explain what happened to him in prison. Now you have to understand: this Frankie isn’t very smart. When he speaks, it’s usually an unintelligible blend of swearing, slang and frequent invocations of the word “bro”. Nevertheless, the scene builds up to a revelation: Frankie was raped in prison by an inmate wielding a tube of toothpaste.

In any other movie or TV show, this might have some shock value. But this is American Heist, and the actor on the other side of the scene, playing Frankie’s brother, is Hayden Christensen. As an actor, Christensen repeatedly reminds us that he doesn’t seem to understand dialogue. Or pathos. Or most of the things we’d expect of an actor onscreen. Christensen’s strengths seem limited to fight choreography and looking like he’s about to cry. Since neither of those things make much sense in this scene with Brody, Christensen decides to stare impassively, mumble some lines reproaching his brother for messing up his life, and wander away.

This certainly isn’t the first movie to show off Christensen’s highly specialized set of acting skills. We realized it way back in 2002, when he was picked to play Anakin Skywalker (the lead!) in Star Wars: Episode II and in Episode III. At the time, I think some of us chalked up Christensen’s woefully creaky performance to inexperience. Maybe with more films under his belt, we thought, Mr. Christensen would learn a few things – starting with how to deliver lines without sounding like an alien trying to do its best human impression. Oh, how wrong we were.

Duty compels me to offer some details about the film’s plot, though I doubt it will help you that much. The story follows two brothers, both with troubled pasts (heavy sigh). James (Christensen) works as a mechanic and Frankie (Brody) has just been released following a ten-year prison term. Surprise – mere hours after release, Frankie meets up with some fellow criminals and draws his unwilling brother into a bank robbery scheme. Hackneyed attempts at drama and action ensue.

Christensen and Brody play two brothers in New Orleans with troubled pasts.

The most surprising thing about this movie is that Hayden Christensen isn’t – by a significant margin – the worst part about it. American Heist is a film that was shot on a reported budget of $10 million, yet it looks like it cost less than a tenth of that. Aside from the amateur camera work and bad CGI, I’m pretty sure a five-year-old could assemble a better cut of this film on an iPad than the rickety “professional” editing job on display here.

Who could have directed such a production? A Russo-Armenian helmer named Sarik Andreasyan, who stages some of the most illogical movie scenes in Heist that I’ve seen onscreen in several years. Andreasyan seems to believe that when the police get into a shootout with armed bank robbers, the following things happen:

  1. The police do not secure the building at all, and leave multiple exits for the robbers to use
  2. Two armed robbers, after murdering multiple people, can jog down empty streets (while being followed closely by the police), and not be apprehended or killed
  3. Hails of bullets fly harmlessly past until the script requires one to hit somebody (and while this happens in a load of movies, American Heist might win a prize for it)

The aggressively stupid script was written by Raul Inglis, who can’t be faulted for having a poor grasp of the English language. That is, I have to hope that’s the reason for some of the fever-dream lines he’s pulled together. Inglis’ dialogue fluctuates wildly between Brody and Christensen spouting their imitated thug gibberish and Tory Kittles (as the villain) intoning bizarre, pseudo-philosophical musings about Thomas Jefferson, economics and military tactics.

Want a taste? The crook repeatedly claims "the banking institution is more dangerous than the army," and "we will start a revolution" - yet his grand plan involves lifting some cash and killing a bank manager. At one point, when he's pinned down in the bank by the police, Kittles' character takes a professorial tone and states, “We must adapt to a changing situation.” That was roughly when several people at my screening began face-palming.

I should have known it was a bad sign when I kept expecting the actors onscreen to stop, acknowledge the camera, and grin – as if the whole time, they were filming some sort of parody of the crime genre. But no, American Heist isn’t nearly clever enough for that. In fact, the saddest thing about this film is that even though it’s thoroughly awful, it’s not bad in the way a movie like The Room is bad – in other words, it’s not bizarre or shoddy enough to become a cult film. The best advice I can give is this: if you see this thing surface in the bargain DVD bin at your supermarket - keep digging, “bro”. American Heist gets one star out of four.

One Star

American Heist just had its world premiere at the 39th annual Toronto International Film Festival, and was picked up for distribution by Saban Films. If you’ve seen it, what did you think? Join the discussion in the comments section below, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!