11 essential heist movies, in honour of ‘Ambulance’

Before Michael Bay’s must-see action thriller movie Ambulance – in cinemas Friday – arrives with sirens-blaring as the latest and greatest heist movie, we look at the films that built the genre

In association with Universal Pictures.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? Widely regarded as the one that started it all, the OG heist movie tells the story of a criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider assembling a gang of variously talented allies to pull off an ambitious crime – a half-million dollar jewel heist – that inevitably goes wrong, thus setting the template for the core tropes of the genre. And with director/master of thrills Michael Bay behind the wheel of Ambulance, in cinemas this week, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of life (and death) in the heist movie some 72 years later.

The Italian Job (1969)

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In the groovetastic 1960s, the heist movie moved away from its gritty roots to become a staple comedy format, the inevitable bungling of a job providing plenty for leads to play against for laughs. By the end of the decade, the form was pretty much perfected in this Christmas telly staple, which sees Michael Caine planning a ludicrous Italian gold heist in humble British Mini cars and climaxing in what may be the most famous final scene in film history.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino’s early work is so full of gold it’s easy to overlook this curate’s egg, a 1975 movie with themes of masculinity and gender that are still being explored as fresh concepts in movies like The Power Of The Dog. Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, a desperate guy who plans a bank job to pay for his partner, Leon Shermer, to have gender realignment surgery. Suffice to say, the heist goes wrong, and in one tense scene after another the audience is asked to figure out what a good resolution to the situation might look like. Deep down you know there probably isn’t one.

Heat (1995)

One of those cinematic worlds-colliding moments, Michael Mann’s movie pits Al Pacino’s LAPD detective Vincent Hanna in a cat-and-mouse chase with Robert DeNiro’s career criminal Neil McCauley following the heist of $1.6 million in untraceable bearer bonds. The first time the two Titans of Tension ever played against each other on-screen, one can only imagine every day on set was a bonanza of passive-aggressive eyebrow-raising and people being told to fuggheddaboudit. However it played out, the thrills on screen proved irresistible to the public, and the heist movie had a new template for the next millennium – in many ways, not least its sun-baked LA setting, Ambulance is a spiritual sequel to this stone-cold classic.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

While the sure-handed Michael Mann was playing it straight with Heat, newcomer Bryan Singer showed the divide opening up in Hollywood between generations of directors at a time when raw, fresh talent was deconstructing the form. Here, the unconventional structure, twisting plot, shifting motivation and unreliable narrator added up to a surprise hit for which the then-little-known term ‘spoiler’ could have been coined – you had to see this one before someone blunderingly ruined it for you.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

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Proving that anything Hollywood can do, Britain can do nastier, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels presented a world in which everyone has a nickname, talks like Greg Wallace and is subject to the rough justice of enforcer Big Chris, in a performance from Vinnie Jones that’s only marginally less intimidating than he was on-pitch in his footballing days. Even the target of the heist – a marijuana farm – was grubby in comparison to the bank jobs and casino hits we were used to.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Heist movies lend themselves to ensemble casts thanks to their reliance on criminal crews, but even in heist movie terms, Ocean’s Eleven had a cast as crammed with A-list actors as an Ellen selfie. As Danny Ocean, George Clooney plans a $160m dollar casino heist with the help of Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and more. Glitzy rather than gritty, this remake of a 1960 Ratpack vehicle shows just how timeless the heist movie is.

Inside Man (2006)

Who’s heisting what? Clive Owen’s Dalton Russel is the mastermind behind an elaborate and hostage-tastic Wall Street bank job. Unfortunately for him, Denzel Washington’s NYPD hostage negotiator has other plans, as does bank insider Jodie Foster. Auteur director Spike Lee here turned his hand to a classic genre and produced an impeccable archetype.

Spring Breakers (2012)

Who’s heisting what? Depending on how you view this controversial girls-gone-bad movie, it’s either Selena Gomez and friends, whose vacation in Florida takes a dangerous turn when they become embroiled with James Franco’s rat-like gangster Alien, and a plot to take money, weapons and drugs from a rival, or it’s the always-controversial director Harmony Korine making off with anything resembling a plot. This was the movie in which Korine’s uncomfortable reality-porn-influenced style ascended to the liminal plane. Love it or hate it, there’s no other movie like it.

Baby Driver (2017)

A car chase is a classic element of any heist movie, and by focusing on swoonsome, sensitive and music obsessed getaway driver antihero, Baby, Edgar Wright’s entry into the genre was as car chase-packed as your average Vin Diesel movie, but with a killer soundtrack and plenty of human heart to boot. A fine appetite whetter for the four-wheeled thrills in Ambulance (clue in the title), which also stars the brilliant Baby Driver actor Eiza Gonzalez.

Army Of The Dead (2021)

It’s a cinematic inevitability that a director will, at some point, contemplate whether a genre can be improved by chucking in a few zombies. So it is with Army Of The Dead, in which Dave Bautista leads a bunch of mercenaries looking to raid a Las Vegas casino during a zombie outbreak. Given the director in question is master of overstatement Zak Snyder, it’s not so much a case of a few zombies as a bazillion of the things, proving heists are never simple – even when all law and order has broken down.

Ambulance is in cinemas nationwide now– book your tickets

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