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Up for action? Watch 5 best Los Angeles heist films

By Joshua Rothkopf, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in &ldquo;Ambulance,&rdquo; directed by Michael Bay.
Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Ambulance,” directed by Michael Bay. (Universal Pictures/TNS) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles’ reputation as a bank-robbing wonderland may be receding — a good thing — but it leaves behind some all-time, on-screen highs. If you watch all five of these films, you’ll understand what makes for a perfect action-thriller, equal parts tense talk and exhilarating release. What you end up doing with that knowledge, we hereby indemnify ourselves of, formally.

‘Ambulance’ (2022)

A hard truth to swallow but one that must be reckoned with: Michael Bay, the virtuoso of violence who never met an explosion he didn’t like, unleashed a landmark L.A. crime film. He didn’t make it quietly. In a near-abstract downtown emptied out by the pandemic, Bay executed his most liberated piece of Bayhem, a post-bank-heist chase movie that doubles down on its own heightened sense of ridiculous at every turn.

‘The Bling Ring’ (2013)

Fine, no bank here. A story this local, based on an actual string of Hollywood Hills burglaries, needed to crash our list, because it gets at something essential about the subgenre. Writer-director Sofia Coppola exfoliates the lust for celebrity lifestyles that often powers theft, even at its most haphazard and uncoordinated. These high school students were never going to get away with it, but for a while, their run is consequence-free.

‘Drive’ (2011)

Cruising through the night, the unnamed getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) awaits his next gig, even as the distractions of a vulnerable neighbor in need (Carey Mulligan) and a chatty, menacing mobster (Albert Brooks) grow too big to ignore. Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s nail-biter owes some of its tough-minded minimalism to Walter Hill’s 1978 “The Driver,” though when your style is this confident, the result transcends all predecessors.

‘Heat’ (1995)

A towering film that could have begun and ended this list, Michael Mann’s ultra-quotable drama is the high point of a trajectory that kicked off a decade earlier with his sleek work on “Miami Vice.” Combustible elements slide into place — including Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sharing a scene for the first time — as Mann mounts a gun-metal-blue vision of a city peopled by operators at every level of experience. The action is the juice.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)

Quentin Tarantino has since eclipsed his own breakthrough, yet there’s still something diamond-sharp and perfect about it. A heist goes south and the perpetrators are left to stew in their own juices — juices that include the sweat of an unraveling fellowship, the tears of a secret betrayal and the blood of a severed ear. It’s a movie for those who luxuriate in language (as does Tarantino), the fates of half-smart criminals closing in with every wisecrack.