Even before the Hays Code was put in place, Hollywood was obsessed with criminals. Although they couldn’t show the full extent of their violence or venomous verbal expression, movies have portrayed bad guys on screen throughout history and in varying genres, from gangster flicks to westerns.
However, in the mid to late 20th century, the tide started to turn where the heroes were often characters who historically would have been villains. Although their profession may be unlawful, these characters ushered in a new sub-genre in films known as the ‘one last job’ movie. Most often characterized by a character trying to leave a life of crime behind, these movies have become some of the most enthralling in recent cinematic history.
‘Sexy Beast’ (2000)
Beginning his career in the theater, Jonathan Glazer has gone on to become one of the most well-rounded directors there are, having directed theater productions, music videos and successful feature films. His first feature film, Sexy Beast, stars Ray Winston as a retired British gangster who gets roped into one last heist by his menacing ex-boss.
Ben Kingsley is both hilarious and terrifying as the lethal ex-boss Don Logan, a role he would get Oscar-nominated for. Despite only a modest box office earning, Sexy Beast has been widely praised by critics and fans alike. A knock-out film soundtrack and real directorial panache propel Sexy Beast to be one of Britain’s classic crime flicks.
The gold standard for ‘one last job’ movie, Heat was monumental in 1995 for being the first movie to feature Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the same scene. A passion project for director Michael Mann, Heat concerns an LA detective who must track down a highly intelligent criminal who is going to pull off one last robbery before he retires.
One of the most influential crime films of the modern era, Heat spawned a whole new understanding of the ‘one last job’ trope through quotes like “Told you I’m never going back” and the idea of feeling the heat around the corner. A face-off between two of the greatest actors ever during their mid-career apex, Heat proves that “the action is the juice.”
‘The Town’ (2010)
Co-written, directed, and starring Ben Affleck, The Town has become one of the all-time heist films. Set in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, the film follows a band of thieves who set out to rob Fenway Park, but things get complicated when one of them develops feelings for a victim of a previous score.
The movie is authentically Boston, all the way from Affleck to the extras. Jeremy Renner builds on the success he garnered with The Hurt Locker to deliver a vivid performance that won him great acclaim. Dynamically shot with impressive set pieces and quotable lines, The Town is a welcome addition to the ‘one last job’ movie hall of fame.
Michael Mann is no stranger to the concept of pulling off a final heist before walking away for good. Before Heat, Mann explored this idea thoroughly in his 1981 crime action movie Thief. Starring James Caan, the movie is about a skilled jewel thief who must do one last score to satisfy the needs of a powerful gangster.
Mann, who was born in the Windy City, makes Chicago a character, photographing the city with great affection. Caan is unflinching in one of the defining roles of his career, displaying both incredible loyalty and threat in his heavily macho role. With themes he will circle back to throughout his career, Thief is the perfect starting point for fans of the genre and Mann’s work at large.
Originally conceived as a horror film, Christopher Nolan‘s Inception has become a relic of a bygone era. The blockbuster circles an expert thief who is offered a chance to have his criminal history erased if he successfully infiltrates the subconscious of a wealthy mark, through his dreams.
Praised for its direction, imagination and scope, Inception is widely considered one of the best films of the 2010s. While it branches out into other genres such as sci-fi, Inception‘s plot is strictly in the heist film wheelhouse, despite its broad creativity. While an unconventional ‘one last job’ film, Inception is only enhanced by its genre-blending and mild melting brilliance.
‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969)
Causing uproar at the time for its graphic violence, The Wild Bunch is now considered a timeless masterpiece. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, the Revisionist Western features an ensemble cast led by William Holden as Ernest Borgnine as a troupe of aging outlaws who plot a grand heist before they retire.
Noted for its revolutionary filming techniques that included quick cuts and slow motion, The Wild Bunch was deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically” significant by the Library of Congress in 1999. The trope of the over-the-hill gunslingers banding together for one last hurrah has been well-worn in recent years, but none did it better than The Wild Bunch.
‘Robot and Frank’ (2012)
Another genre-melding heist film, Robot and Frank has both brains and a heart. With reviews far exceeding its meager box office numbers, Robot and Frank stars Frank Langella as an elderly jewel thief who is gifted a robot by his son. While initially dismissive of the machine, he grows to appreciate it once he realizes it can help him commit burglaries.
With a warm and clever script by Christopher Ford and well-understated direction by upcoming Thunderbolts director Jake Schreier, the movie makes for a clear ‘one last job’ film due to the protagonist’s age. Deceptively simple, Robot and Frank shines due to its ability to have its audience truly care for a relationship between a real person and a lifeless machine.
‘Baby Driver’ (2017)
While most ‘one last job’ movies focus on the old trying to get out of their business, Baby Driver‘s protagonist is very young. Originally set in Los Angeles but updated to Atlanta, Baby Driver focuses on a kid getaway driver who agrees to partake in one final heist once his boss threatens the life of his girlfriend.
The film is drenched in director Edgar Wright‘sdistinctive style, with every musical cue decidedly on point. With an ensemble cast of top-tier actors, Baby Driver is pure satisfaction put on screen. Bursting with liveliness and color, the movie works because it is the ultimate marriage between genre and director.
Unlike other ‘one last job’ movies, Se7en is about the good guys. Starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, the movie follows a detective on the brink of retirement and one who just moved to the city trying to track down a vicious serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his inspiration. A phenomenon upon release, Se7en is widely regarded as one of the best films of the 90s.
Se7en is all about balance, as David Fincher‘s inspired direction is a perfect complement to Andrew Kevin Walker‘s brilliantly wicked script. Similarly, Pitt’s edgy juvenility works flawlessly against Freeman’s contemplative, interior performance. Bleak and dark with a twist even strangers can quote almost thirty years on, Se7en is more revered today than it ever has been, and for good reason.
Although the script had been circling Hollywood since at least the early 80s, it wasn’t made until Clint Eastwood decided he was ready for it in the early 90s. Originally intended to be Eastwood’s last Western, Unforgiven follows William Munny, a former gunslinger who takes on one more job when a new gunslinger comes around with a tempting proposal.
Nominated for seven Oscars, Unforgiven ended up winning four, including Best Picture. Characterized as a Revisionist Western, Unforgiven became only the third film of that genre to win Best Picture, following Cimarron and Dances with Wolves. Maybe the zenith of the ‘one last job,’ no film exemplifies unfinished business quite like Unforgiven.