American Heist inadvertently generates tension by spurring the audience to wonder what a great actor like Adrien Brody is doing donning thug drag in yet another film about macho hoods who dream up a bank robbery that goes reliably awry. The film offers a veritable smorgasbord of dated, only-in-the-movies clichés about the debt-ridden working class (someone actually tells their partner, more than once, that it’s “me and you against the world”). But Brody refuses to sleepwalk through his performance as Frankie, a con who gets out of the clink after 10 years and immediately sets about ruining his brother Jimmy’s (Hayden Christensen) life. The film would be weirdly easier to take if Brody were phoning it in, as one could potentially groove on his disenchantment as a hypocritical fashion statement a la most of Marlon Brando’s performances after Last Tango in Paris.
There’s a stifling aura of earnestness to Brody’s work here. As Frankie, the actor doesn’t appear to miss any possible opportunities to laboriously contort his body, particularly his face, which he often twists up in anguished knots in a fruitless effort to squeeze resonance from the figurative stone that is this film’s ineptly talky script. All of his gestures scan as self-conscious, such as the way that Brody has Frankie hold his cigarettes (which is reminiscent of John Travolta’s posturing in his own less-than-stellar VOD misadventures), or strut down the film’s unsurprisingly abundant, graffiti-marked, neo-noir-lit streets. Occasionally, the actor moves you in spite of himself, most notably in the ludicrous tear-stained climax between Frankie and Jimmy, which suggests a dim, pulpy restaging of an unused scene between the estranged brothers from On the Waterfront.
Yet Brody’s inherent physical grace provides the film with occasional mild diversions; at his least inspired, he’s still a remarkable architectural object, even when huffing and puffing himself up to tough-guy proportions. Brody’s slim, wiry frame is muscled here in a fashion that recalls his presence in Predators; there, his makeover felt like a stunt, but in American Heist it lends ultimately wasted subtext to a desperate protagonist, reminiscent of The Wire’s Ziggy, who grew up to be a fragile fool who built himself a hard body that does him little good. Clad in a leather jacket and necklaces, not to mention tattoos so ostentatious they might as well spell out the phrase “Method Acting,” Brody offers, in repose, a visual sketch of a character who might’ve achieved an element of doomed stature in a film less interested in fetishizing guns or offering various contrived utterances of profanity against backdrops of a pretentiously ghettoized post-Katrina New Orleans.