Nov 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

Crime and chess have a lot in common. For those who truly got game, strategy becomes a philosophy, but sometimes they overplay. Joe Moore (Gene Hackman, Under Suspicion) gets away with it. Writer-director David Mamet (State and Main) ends up getting too clever for his own good.

If crime was chess, then Joe Moore would be a grand master. He always seems to be several moves ahead of everybody else in the game: “I try to imagine a fella smarter than myself and then I try to think ... what would he do?” he explains. If you hear a ring of humility with even an undertone of self-deprecation, listen close enough to read between the lines: That smarter fella’s behind Joe’s own eyes and winks at him in his mirror. Mamet’s linguistic alchemy turns phrases of street prose into the witty and ironic poetry that his fans expect of him. He studs his script with them. But this line is the seed of Joe’s character, the plot and Heists greatest flaw.

The title of Mamet’s directorial debut, House of Games (1987), was just as seminal: The author’s a notorious creator of deceivers and an architect of plots structured of their deceptions. Both House of Games and his The Spanish Prisoner (1997) are stories of intelligent professionals duped by elaborately staged con games. To paraphrase Joe, Heist turns the thing on its head: An intelligent professional thief does the duping and meticulously sets up the scam.

Think of this as the unlikely third film in what you could call Mamet’s trilogy of the con dressed up in heist-flick drag. Even its title is subtly ironic. Joe and his crew don’t come in, guns blazing, to smash and grab the loot. They’re the David Copperfields of robbery. If Joe’s meticulous plans go like Swiss clockwork, the guys just make the goods disappear and they walk away. But it’s when the titular heist goes wrong that the movie begins to go wrong with it.

Joe’s a guy who always has a plan “B” — and a plan “C,” “D” and “E.” He seems to think and arrange for every possible contingency and the tangled web of plot lines begins to fail in suspending disbelief as it practices to deceive. This may be Heists major flaw, but not its only one.

Though Mamet draws elegantly three-dimensional characters of Joe’s men — Delroy Lindo’s Bobby Blane (ex-boxer, Vietnam vet and advocate of prayer) and Mamet film regular Ricky Jay’s Don “Pinky” Pincus (robber, con man and doting uncle) — Joe seems to have less back story than either, with his past not so much hidden as ignored.

On the contrary, Rebecca Pidgeon’s Fran, Joe’s wife, is almost the typical woman with a “past.” Pidgeon plays her with a manner that recalls Annette Bening’s whorish con artist, Myra, in The Grifters (1990), only devoid of Myra’s phony perkiness. When Fran isn’t serving as a mouthpiece for Mamet’s wit (with lines like “I’m a go-getter. Tell me what you wanna go get”), she wears a tight-lipped mask of cool that rarely drops to allow us into her head or heart.

But Heist does give some excellent actors the opportunity to talk Mamet, a dialect sometimes all its own. Hackman’s range gives Joe depth. Lindo rides shotgun in his most physical and multifaceted role yet. And these guys have a relationship more profound than just colleagues or buddies. They recall Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman’s roles in Eastwood’s revisionist Western, Unforgiven (1992), where Hackman played the villain. Mamet’s opening shot is of Joe carrying an antique rifle through the woods as he poses as a hunter to set up an element of the heist. Violence breaks out in a climactic scene after being strictly avoided in the plot up to that point. Both seem to allude to Eastwood’s film.

Ultimately, though, it’s Mamet’s overcleverness — his complex game of plot and language — that ends up robbing Heist.

Visit the official Heist Web site at heist.warnerbros.com.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].