By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Nov 10, 2001 at 4:17 AM

It's remarkable how something so old-fashioned can simultaneously feel so fresh. That perfectly describes "Heist," the new film from writer/director David Mamet ("State and Main"). It's pleasing to watch a Hollywood movie that's concerned more with plot and character than big explosions and special effects.

The never-less-than-outstanding Gene Hackman is Joe Moore, a career criminal looking for a way out. His cohorts are Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay) and his young, beautiful wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life spouse).

Early on we meet Joe and his crew in action. They are meticulously robbing a jewelry store in broad daylight, but things don't go as planned. They get the goods, but Joe's face ends up on surveillance tapes. He's been "burned" and figures it's time to retire on his boat with his wife.

But Bergman (Danny DeVito), the shady businessman who fronts Joe's jobs, wants him to pull off one more job. It involves stealing a bundle of Swiss gold. Joe wants no part of it, but Bergman refuses to pay him and his crew for the job they've already done until they do it.

Though he doesn't like it, Joe has no choice. He needs the money for his retirement. He agrees to do the job as long as he and Bergman split everything down the middle. That's fine with Bergman, as long as Joe agrees to let his nephew Jimmy (Sam Rockwell) work with him.

Now Joe and company prep for the big heist. It's fun to watch these guys work. They plan methodically and leave nothing to chance. As Joe says, "I don't tie my shoes without a back up plan." They are true professionals.

The heist itself, which is far from the end of "Heist," is amazingly complex and entirely believable. Hopefully thieves watching won't get any funny ideas. Without giving too much away, the gold they're after is at an airport and, more specifically, on an airplane.

In some ways the heist is only the beginning. It sets off a series of back-stabbing, blackmail, murder and deceit. Who is conning whom? Where do loyalties lie? And who will get the gold?

Mamet is a master of character and dialogue, and both are working in full force here. These guys and gals are all the kind of villains and criminals you love in spite of yourself. Yes they commit crimes, but they are so fun to watch you can't help but root for at least some of them.

The plotting is also exceptional. Mamet doesn't throw a bunch of twists out there just because he can. Nothing is done cheaply or artificially. He lets everything evolve from the characters and the carefully constructed storyline. You may think you can guess what's going to happen, but you'll be wrong most of the time.

That's not to say everything works. Mamet makes an error in casting similar to the infamous one made by Francis Ford Coppola in "The Godfather Part 3" when he cast his daughter Sofia, an inexperienced actress, in a pivotal role.

In "Heist," Mamet's wife Pidgeon is miscast. She is given an underdeveloped role, but her performance is never convincing. She doesn't convey the combination of sexiness, sophistication and smarts very well.


Another minor complaint is Mamet's decision to include a completely conventional shoot-out near the conclusion. This is the only time he does something predictable and stale and it's hard to figure out why.

Flaws aside, "Heist" is still an exciting, funny and often tense movie. Hackman and Lindo give typically strong performances and Mamet pulls off a satisfying ending. Much like Joe, it's reliable and intelligent.

"Heist" opened at theaters everywhere on Fri., Nov. 9. Click here for showtimes.