The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Thief’

Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Froemming picked “Thief.”

The info:

The‌‌ ‌‌Movie:‌‌ ‌‌‌‌“Thief”‌‌ ‌‌‌

Starring:‌‌ James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson

Director:‌‌‌‌ Michael Mann

Plot‌‌ ‌‌Summary:‌‌‌‌ ‌‌(From‌‌ ‌‌IMDB)‌‌ An ace safe cracker wants to do one last big heist for the mob before going straight.

Rotten‌‌ ‌‌Tomatoes‌‌ ‌‌Rating:‌‌ 79 percent‌‌ ‌

Our take:

Froemming: Well, it is a new year for everyone, and Brown and I are still up to our same old bull(REDACTED). It has been a while, but it is good to be back.

And how did I want to kick-off 2023 for The JOE-DOWN? Well, I want to go back to the well of things that make us happy. And that well is basically Travolta, Cage, Carpenter and, well, Michael (REDACTED) Mann. 

And it has been a long time since we visited Mann. Thus far, we have reviewed “Manhunter,” “Heat” and the not-so-good “Miami Vice.”

Now, last summer I read Mann’s sequel to “Heat,” which was a wild book. But The JOE-DOWN doesn’t review books. We are not those kinds of nerds. So, after I read that I was listening to a podcast that Tarantino does and he was rambling on and on about Mann’s first movie called “Thief.” So, I filed that away for a rainy day.

And that rainy day has come.

I had never seen this before. And, frankly, I feel kinda stupid about that considering how much I loved “Heat.” This is basically the DNA of that movie, starring Sonny Corleone himself, James Caan…

Wait, this is also our first James Caan movie. Though to be fair, 90 percent of our picks are to spite the other, so we miss out on a lot of good movies.

Anyway, as I torch my used car lot to the ground why don’t you give us your first impressions, Brown.

Brown: Not only is this a Michael Mann movie, Froemming. This is also produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, which frankly, we need more Bruckheimer movies. Because it always means some kind of insanity. 

Now, “Thief” is subdued when it comes to that insanity, but there’s glimpses between a surly James Caan, his fleet of Cadillacs and the synth-heavy soundtrack. 

I never heard of this movie before this installment of the JOE-DOWN. And, well, Michael Mann is three out of four on the JOE-DOWN. Well, except for casting Jim Belushi. Can’t be perfect all the time. 

Froemming: Well, since you brought it up…

Brown: So Froemming, get us started while I light up this ultra-hot metal rod. 

Froemming: Well, we start off on the always wet streets of Chicago. Seriously, Mann drowned these streets in a crap ton of water for the whole movie so the streets are always shiny.

We come across some safe crackers and some goofball sitting in the get-away car, which I assume has to be the easiest job of any crime. Just sit there then drive fast once it is done. I hope his cut is smaller than the others here.

And we see the nuts-and-bolts of breaking into a safe. Way more than I ever cared to know, but I guess it hammers home the realism or something. And what do they score? Diamonds. Which is an oddly specific thing to be going after. 

Brown: There was so much footage of drills being used on a safe that I worried I was watching “The Driller Killer.” 

Also, how have we never watched “The Driller Killer?”

Froemming: We will now that you let me know it exists!

They get the loot and scram, in their 1970s cars. Good thing I watched this at home instead of the gym where I usually watch these. This movie takes place almost exclusively at night, and I can’t see a damn thing because of glare at the gym.

Now we sort of meet our thief, Frank. He runs a car lot and owns a bar, in which one is a good way to launder money since it is a cash business. The other sells lemons to rubes. So, it is good to see this ex-con owning legitimate businesses I guess. Weird his probation officer never seemed to question where the start-up money came from. 

Brown: Do you think Frank sells cars that get 300 hectares on a single tank of kerosene? 

Frankly, this movie is also a good reminder that everyone in the early 1980s dressed like a used car salesman. 

Froemming: They also looked like they were 50 years old while only being in their 30s.

Brown: The sideburns don’t help Caan or Belushi. 

Anyways, while Frank is trying to sell off the diamonds, his fence mentions that someone is asking about him for some work. However, Frank is fine in his comfort zone. He’s his own boss, his buddy, Jim Belushi is taken care of and isn’t taking ayahuasca. He’s also dating a waitress, so he’s one step ahead of Charlie Kelly. 

I’ll say this: between owning a bar and how this relationship is going on, “Thief” doesn’t do the best job of explaining these things. Especially since the relationship is a central point of the movie. 

Froemming: The owning of businesses I was questioning since he is only a few years out of prison. Dating a waitress? Hell, even Frank Reynolds can land a waitress so that I didn’t need an origin story for.

Now, Frank sets up a date with his lady friend and then goes to his bar, where I imagine he is also The Rat King there. And he gets a call from Jim Belushi, which can never be good in any circumstance. And he finds out the guy who fences his goods was murdered. 

Well, if there is one thing we know about Caan in movies, he always keeps his cool…

Brown: Finding out the fate of his fence, Frank finds out that a man running a plating company had a hand in it. So, Frank busts in, points a gun to the man’s face and tells him he’s got three hours to get him the $180,000 he took (I guess?) from the fence. 

Froemming: Just for perspective, $180K would be more than a half-a-million dollars in today’s money. Frank is doing pretty (REDACTED) good as a thief.

Brown: That’s the most math we’ve done on the JOE-DOWN since the time I estimated how many people died on the Vegas strip during the end of “Con-Air.”

When the deal goes down, another man is there to give Frank his money. That man is Leo, and he’s the man that’s been asking about Frank. See, he wants Frank to work high-end jobs for him. And he’s a man of unlimited means, so anything Frank needs, Frank’ll get. 

However, Frank doesn’t want the hassle of working with others. Plus, the more people get involved, the higher the risk of drawing attention. 

HOWEVER, all this changes because Frank really wants a wife and kids… after having his wife (that we never see, mind you) just left him? 

Now, I could buy into this a little better if we didn’t see Frank do the following to the waitress: 

  • Show up late to the date. 
  • Threaten a bouncer when he’s yelling at her at a bar. 
  • Threatening bar patrons as he tries to throw the waitress into his car.
  • … throwing the waitress into his car. 
  • Getting into a heated discussion with her at a diner.
  • Finally, explaining at the diner that he killed a man in prison with a pipe. 

There are red flags. But in this case, the flags on Frank are (REDACTED) crimson. It turns out the waitress also had tough times, but what the (REDACTED) makes someone say that Frank is the man I’ll settle down with?!

Froemming: Look, all I know is Michael Mann knows how to make a (REDACTED) diner scene.

Brown: I think something about greasy omelets and stale coffee brings out the best in the man. 

Froemming: You are right, though. Frank is a giant red flag. We see it non-stop in this, he is a bad guy. Sure, at times he is good. But the man also pulls his gun on some schmuck at a plating company, then points that same gun at the poor staff at that place too.

Frank is also wildly not prepared for the real world. He has this weird postcard/collage in his wallet that describes his life and his future. It is childish, but he went to prison at 20 and got out in his mid-30s. 

Also on that postcard is his good buddy, David — otherwise known as ‘Okla’ — who taught him all he knows about being a thief. Okla is still in prison, and because he is played by Willie Nelson, I have to wonder how often he sings this to himself:

Brown: I’m surprised that while talking to Frank in prison, Willie Nelson didn’t complain about when a dime bag used to cost a dime. 

Apparently Okla is like a father figure to Frank. And one that’s got little time remaining. See, Okla is supposed to get out of prison in 10 months but after being diagnosed with a heart condition, doctors say he won’t make it that long. He asks Frank for help to get out of prison. 

A couple things. 

First, I get real uncomfortable around heart condition points in media, considering I’m an obese man and a family history of heart issues. That left me with an uneasy feeling, but that’s my cross to bear. 

Second, knowing nothing about this movie, I figured the main theft in this movie called “Thief” was going to be breaking Willie Nelson out of prison. I’m happy it didn’t go that way after Frank decides to go with a more civilized way of getting Okla out of prison: bribery. 

So with a friend wanting to get out of prison and this terrible idea of making a family with a waitress he berates in public, Frank calls Leo and says he’ll do one big score so he can be set for the rest of his life. 

Who do you go to for the biggest score in your life? *sigh* … Jim Belushi. I guess this fits with Frank, seeing that Jim Belushi makes women in the wardrobe department cry

Froemming: People are under a lot of stress, Brown.

So, now we get into the planning of the big heist, which takes place on top of a giant building with Leo, Frank, History’s Greatest Monster Belushi and some hired goons. They get into the nitty gritty technical stuff that was so over my head I just zoned out for most of this chatter. All I knew is they were planning on going in through the roof. Which, they have to be in the building to get to the roof, thus making this not make a lick of sense to me. The score is also in California, so that gives them a lot of distance post-heist to avoid the cops.

Speaking of cops, now that Frank is in cahoots with Leo, he is now on the corrupt cops of Chicago’s radar, and they pull him over for a shakedown. Which goes about as well as you would expect in a James Caan movie. 

Frank is now married to the waitress and they, like many unhappy couples, decide a child will rekindle their mistake of coupling up. So, they go to an adoption agency, only to be spoken down to because of Frank’s past in the clink. Which, goes about as well as you would expect in a James Caan movie.

Brown: Yeah… not a good idea to drop racial slurs during a meeting with an adoption agency. But, Frank is kind of a monster. 

However, Frank gets what he wants after a meeting with Leo. Getting an update on the upcoming job, Leo brings up Frank’s adoption. People like to gossip in Leo’s circle. Leo reiterates to Frank that they’re family, and if he wants a kid, Leo will get him a kid. Want a boy? Done. Girl? Done. What color you want? Leo will get it for you.

My question is, can Leo get you a toe with nail polish before 3 o’clock?

So, Frank and the waitress get a baby! And they’re so prepared to become parents that *checks notes* they don’t buy a carseat for the baby? 

… What the (REDACTED)?! I’d buy this as a one-time event since it seems like they got the kid mere hours after Frank and Leo met. But by the end of the movie, they still don’t have a (REDACTED) car seat! 

Froemming: Look, Frank isn’t going to let the government and big carseat tell him how to raise his child. 

Brown: Frank would absolutely be one of those chodes who owns a “No seatbelts, we die like real men” bumper sticker.

Froemming: Also, who would work with a guy who has an in into the blackmarket baby arena? If I were Frank, I would be mortified that some old weirdo can just get a baby whenever he wants. 

Maybe it was a dumpster baby?

Anywho, we also learn Frank’s home, office and even his car is bugged and wired and tracked, making this whole situation seem like a living hell for a guy who was adamant at the start that he didn’t want any attention on himself. Hell, the cops bring him in for a good old fashioned beating because they want their taste of his efforts. 

As I said before, that first heist at the start got him $500K in today’s dollars. He should have stuck to that. Leo is just making his life a living hell at this point.

Brown: Frank is a coke habit away from being end-game Henry Hill. I mean, he’s blowing up Cadillacs later. 

We should also mention that the same day they get the kid, Okla dies in the hospital.

Froemming: This freaked me out, because of how old Willie Nelson is today. I will not be ashamed to admit, I will cry when Willie dies. I saw him live in 2005, where he opened for that dirty sunofabitch Bob Dylan, and he put on one of the best shows I ever saw.

Brown: It still weirds me out that Willie Nelson played at one of the biggest dumpster fires in recorded history: Woodstock ‘99. 

Froemming: He had to make money after the IRS took all his wealth, Brown.

And so, with their blackmarket baby, Frank and Jessie get some food and decide to name their new child after Willie Nelson, because that is how one honors the memory of Willie (REDACTED) Nelson. 

Now, after his second shakedown, Frank needs to ditch his trails, so he takes their tracking device and plops it on a bus going to where no sane person would ever go on purpose: Des Moines, Iowa. The cops are heading to the land of corn and sadness as Frank heads out to the sunshine of California.

Brown: When my family would take trips down to Kansas to see my grandparents, we’d always make a stop in Des Moines. Why? Because they had a Long John Silver’s. … That is literally all I know Des Moines for. Frankly, I think that’s more than Des Moines deserves.

Froemming: Des Moines is truly the Jim Belushi of cities.

Brown: … I can’t argue that.

Anyways, we next, what, 10-to-15 minutes is the heist job. And it goes according to plan as they disarm the five alarms and use a long metal rod to slice the vault open. They can literally walk into the vault.

Something about heist movies hit the mark for me. It makes me want to play all the heist missions from “Grand Theft Auto 5” because they were so goddamn badass. 

But if we’ve learned from literally every other heist movie, things start to go horribly wrong after Frank finishes his “final job.”

Froemming: Yeah, so the vault was one that is made differently, so there is no consistency in the production of them to make it hard for safecrackers, so they just burn through it like they are Darth Vader about to kick some rebel ass.

And when Frank gets back from San Diego, he meets with Leo. And like you said, things go south real quick between these two.

Brown: Yep. We had to see Jim Belushi shirtless. 

Froemming: Shirtless and frolicking on a beach, which makes it all the more worse.

Brown: 

Froemming: So, Leo is light on the payment. Frank is owed $800K and Leo hands him an envelope with less than $100K in it. He tells Frank he invested the rest in some properties in Texas, which really puts Frank in a mood. Because he said he did not want to do that. Then this joker Leo says he has another heist for Frank, despite Frank being very clear he wants out.

The problem with Leo is he does not listen. This terrible personal trait of his will end up biting him in the ass.

Frank says he wants his money in, what, 24 hours? This is the crap that made him not want to get into business with this chucklehead in the first place. 

Brown: Leo is insulted by Frank’s lack of gratitude and outright dismissiveness. Not the best thing to do to a guy who got you a black market child. 

Case in point: when Frank gets to his car lot, there are hired goons waiting for him after they beat the shit out of Jim Belushi. There’s a fight where Frank is knocked out and Jim Belushi meets a grizzly end via multiple gunshots. 

When Frank wakes up, Leo is there, telling him to look at Jim Belushi’s dead body. 

Leo reminds Frank that he owns him now. 

Froemming: Frank got out of one prison years ago and found himself in a very different one. And as we recall in the diner, he will go into crazy mode to survive being taken advantage of. 

So, he storms home and makes his wife and black-market baby leave. To go far away. He is closing himself off from being hurt and forcing them away to save their lives. Because, much like Marsellus Wallace, Frank is about to go medieval on Leo’s ass.

Brown: Frank boots the waitress and his black-market baby out of the house with $410,000 of cash in shoe boxes that would make Ginger from “Casino” jealous

When the family’s out of the house, Frank blows it up. He does the same thing at the bar he (apparently) owned AND the car lot. He has nothing to lose at this point. 

Froemming: Man, imagine what those Chicagoland area properties would be worth today. Frank is not thinking about the future. 

Well, Frank goes to Leo’s house. And for a crime boss, it is shockingly easy to get into his home. Frank just picks the locks and is in. 

First he takes out a hired goon who went to get a glass of milk. 

What am I drinking, milk?

He then goes on the hunt for Leo. And this suspense reminded me a lot of the end of “Manhunter,” only with more questionable music.

Brown: While Frank is stalking the house for Leo, eventually gunning him down in the living room, there’s some music playing in the background that, as I described to Froemming, was like a bar band being told “ehh, try to sound like ‘Comfortably Numb.’” 

This movie was chock-full of charming ‘80s synth that I thoroughly enjoyed. Then this Pink Floyd knockoff plays and I just started chuckling. 

Also, this movie wraps up almost like the end to “Scarface” as Frank gets into a shootout in suburbia against a bunch of hired goons

Only, Frank has a flak jacket under his dress shirt, so he’s all good. He walks down the street… and the movie just kind of ends. 

Froemming, why don’t you take us to recommendations while I buy these terrible parents a car seat?

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Froemming: Yeah, this was a pretty good movie and is cool to see the DNA of “Heat.” Plus Caan is dynamite in it.

Brown: Sure. Like I said, there’s something about heist movies that do it for me. This was a quality movie with a few glaring holes, but it’s full of quality Michael Mann-isms.

Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN

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