It's hard to pinpoint the exact elements that make an otherwise okay movie seem mediocre, but that's what we have here. It's all pretty much fine, and is acted and directed with energy and snap, and yet the whole somehow comes out to be less than the sum of its parts. Which is not helped by the fact that even before it starts, you're preparing yourself for a string of "surprising" reversals, and finally one big one at the end, the clever twist that you never saw coming, but knew was impending the whole time.
This has a decent cast, with Dustin Hoffmann, Paul Giacametti, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia, Donal Logue and Luis Guzman. In the center is Edward Burns, who never tends to spark excitement or get very good reviews, but he's okay here. And it's all directed by James Foley, who did a good job with the Jim Thompson adaptation After Dark, My Sweet.
We open with the by now not-unfamiliar frame of Burns lying dead in a parking lot, narrating the film seemingly from beyond the grave, then going back a few minutes to just before he was shot, when he told the gunman his whole story, which will be the story of the film. We have a relatively fun opening credits sequence in which there is an early crime that seems to go bad, but is all an act to scare one of the partners away, leaving all his loot for the rest. Burns as Jake explains the whole thing, laying out principles of the successful heist that we will see enacted through the rest of the film. There's a lot of yak-yak about "confidence" [and wordplay on the 'con' part] and how sometimes things turn on dumb luck.
Then one of the good bad guys' crew is killed, which has been done by gangster The King, requiring Jake to go see what he wants. Hoffmann does a cheerful-but-crazy-volatile gangster routine, and Jake gets roped in to do a heist for him. He gets pickpocketed by Rachel Weisz as Lily, and swings back later to bring her in on the heist. They are required to include one of The King's men, played by the often-delightful Franky G. Then they go to a club and--wait, why are we hearing Madonna's "Erotica" as late as 2003? No one played that song after 1995.
Now it's time for all the little elements to be set in place, with two cops on the take, and a federal agent [Garcia] above them trying to get at Jake and his crew. And then it all goes on to a whole hour in without anything interesting enough to inspire me to write it down. It just proceeds.
There are wrinkles! There are complications! We see people in the framing story that make us wonder who will end up betraying whom. Then Jake decides the job is bad and he won't do it. Then he decides to go through with it anyway. Then they do it. Then there's one clever reversal, then another. Then the last big one, then it ends.
Once it's over, the only interesting question it raises is why it remains so steadfastly mediocre. Foley directs with energy--a kind of energy which is itself cliche, I'm afraid--and after a while one starts to notice his careful and appealing use of color. For example, look at the red and orange highlights on Weisz's hair in the picture. Foley often sets his characters against fields of bright, vivid color. He's using that zoom-in-pull-out technique to good effect. The actors are all good, especially Giacametti, who manages to stand out. But the fact is you've seen it all before, and you've seen it better, a fact the film almost seems to acknowledge.
So it proceeds, amusing enough, hitting all the expected marks with gusto, but a decent imitation is still just a decent imitation. The ideal environment for this movie is on an airplane or bus, when you have a fair amount of time with nothing else to do, when amusing enough is good enough. Otherwise, you're probably too busy.
If you love heist movies enough to watch a fairly mediocre one.