It's no mystery who is reviving those good ol' heist and prison genresIf you're watching a Hollywood movie and a young couple on a transcontinental railroad trip gets involved in a murder, or a ragtag band of thieves plans the perfect heist, or hardened criminals scheme to break out of a tightly guarded prison, it's probably a movie from another era.
Thirty years ago or more, studios turned out pictures in these golden genres like Hebrew National turns out hot dogs. They made heist pictures like "Rififi" and prison movies like "Escape From Alcatraz" and train mysteries like "Murder on the Orient Express" (along with scores of lesser efforts).
But like all Hollywood trends, what goes around comes around, or at least gets remade as a European art house film. After decades of neglect, these classic genres — as well as Westerns, now reinvigorated in such movies as "Brokeback Mountain" and "3:10 to Yuma" — are enjoying something of a resurgence.
So far in 2008, Demi Moore and Michael Caine have teamed to rip off a diamond vault in "Flawless," Jason Statham got the gang together to pull a big score in "The Bank Job" and Ben Kingsley and Emily Mortimer can be found dancing around secrets in Brad Anderson's train murder-mystery "Transsiberian." In the fall (assuming the resolution of some financial issues for distributor ThinkFilm), Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes will tunnel their way out of a London penitentiary in "The Escapist."
These are welcome developments for those who appreciate classic Hollywood storytelling. But they don't account for the unavoidable question: How did this sudden bout of nostalgia come to be?
There's a timeless appeal to some of these genres, of course — "Hollywood ignores them at their peril," Mortimer said in a recent interview. And in a sense, these genres never really went away; the past 15 years, for instance, saw these classic tales told via modern renditions, in prison fairy tales like "The Shawshank Redemption" and the heist-movie postmodernism of "Sexy Beast."
But the surge in these throwbacks is undeniable. More important, so is the emergence of a common denominator: their distribution. These films all come from mini-majors or indies — such outfits as Lionsgate, First Look, Magnolia and ThinkFilm. Studios haven't tried much in these realms recently, and when they do, it's not so much about genre as it is about elements (for instance, the "Ocean's" franchise, whose main goal was to unite stars and whose characters just as easily could have been engaged in other activities besides planning a heist).
That these movies are being released by independent companies is no accident. As studios have vacated many of their previous go-to genres in favor of the comic book and broad-comedy business, others have seen an opportunity and stepped into the void. Assuming a reasonable budget — necessary given the production and distribution economics and the movies' more circumscribed audience — these companies have picked up the slack studios no longer seem willing or able to carry.
"We couldn't do the subject matter and have it cost whatever we wanted it to," says "Bank Job" producer Charles Roven, whose movie cost $20 million and who also produced the year's biggest success in "The Dark Knight." "But, for the right economics, these movies work."
In embracing this thinking, indie companies are not simply mining a newly hot category. These new versions — many expertly redone in ways that are faithful to but improved on their forebears — serve to remind what Hollywood once was and no longer is, and not just literally, by venturing into classic territory. By encapsulating much of what studio films these days actively seek to avoid — an older audience, a midrange budget and excitement driven by expectation more than effects — they are subtly arguing for another model, one that doesn't shy away from commercial appeal but also isn't ashamed to say that not every movie has to cost $200 million and go after four quadrants.
In fact, the notion that these stories have been told before makes them that much harder to tell now, and it's a credit to pretty much all the movies on the 2008 list — whether it's the political subtext of "Bank Job," the moral implications of "Transsiberian" or the gritty visual style of "Escapist" — that they can do so with flair and originality.
"Dark Knight" continues to get plenty of attention for introducing directing chops to a summer movie. That's a good thing; Christopher Nolan deserves it. But as Hollywood's new traditions start to get the quality treatment from studios, it's encouraging that some indies haven't abandoned the old ones.
Steven Zeitchik can be reached at steven.zeitchik@THR.com.