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The ZONE - genre nonfiction
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Rotary Action - helicopter movies
cast: Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Moses Gunn, and Zero Mostel
director: Peter Yates
97 minutes (PG) 1972
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Spirit DVD Region 2
review by Christopher Geary
The Hot Rock
Heist movies typically come in two subgenre types: the slick thriller where lives are put in danger (whether those at risk are thieves or cops), and the often
farcical caper (which usually has bungling crooks who fail to get anything right). This star vehicle for Robert Redford (found on his CV timeline just before he
co-starred again opposite Paul Newman - reunited five years after Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid - in classic con-game movie The Sting), manages
the nifty trick of being a comedy thriller where failure is always an option, but giving up is not. And so, very soon into the job, hilarious mistakes are made,
but the action goes on regardless, continuing to reach a point of obsession.
The Hot Rock (aka: How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons) is written by the great William Goldman, although this movie is based on the crime
novel by the prolific Donald E. Westlake. The Hot Rock was the first of a series of 14 books about robbery expert John Dortmunder, a character who concocts
meticulous plans. The very existence of so many novels suggests that Dortmunder is a crooked character of considerable depth, unlike the shallow geezers and empty-headed
masterminds of so many heist movies, and Redford plays Dortmunder as a career villain determined to find non-violent solutions for even the most problematic heist.
It is his defining trait; and it makes The Hot Rock a fascinating example of an unscrupulous thief pushed to the limits of his morality and ethical judgement.
He is faced with a bewildering dilemma: under what circumstances would Dortmunder kill to get what he wants?
Dortmunder's partner is Andy Kelp (George Segal), a habitual failure who convinces ex-convict Dortmunder to attempt another robbery as soon as he's out of prison.
The speech that starts with: "It's good, and it's bad..." signalling Dortmunder's calculated commitment to tackle a heist leaves Kelp baffled, but it
outlines the problems of the heist, just as it effortlessly draws viewers into the daring but doomed criminal scheme. While stealing a rare diamond from a museum
in Brooklyn, not much goes according to plan, and one of the hapless gang is arrested. The new plan involves breaking their captured team-mate out of police custody
in New York, by using a helicopter as their getaway vehicle. It is this sequence that includes some quite rare cinematic footage of the World Trade Centre towers
still under construction.
However, this action does not solve the problem, as the stolen diamond remains out of easy reach, and two further plot twists reveal just how determined Dortmunder
is to succeed. There are bluffs and betrayals, in a mix of serious drama and jokey action scenes. The Hot Rock is rich in characters with peculiar faults,
and packed with appealing quirks. This is a movie that ensures its antiheroes are as sympathetic as any crooks seen in cinema or TV. Unlike most heist movies where
things go wrong, The Hot Rock puts our likeable rogues into an increasingly complex situation where they cannot, it seems, win against the odds without compromising
Dortmunder's own long-held principles of pursuing only 'victimless' crimes. This apparent fall from grace for the clever planner actually tests the crook's deviousness
to a point where he risks not just blackening his conscience, but also losing the fragile sympathy of viewers, by apparently being willing to become a vicious killer.
The scene is quite savvy enough to play the kind of con-game that anticipates The Sting, and so Dortmunder gets to have his cake and eat it, too. As the heist
movie that breaks the rules of heist movies, this is a winner; despite its main cast all playing losers.