Michael Mann is, without question, one of the most important directors of the 1980s, both for his work in film, as well as for helping to produce the iconic TV show Miami Vice. In 1981, he made his film debut with Thief, a heist film starring James Caan front and center as the eponymous thief, in a very thrilling neo-noir film that checks all the boxes of Michael Mann’s filmography.
Beyond Mann’s distinctive audiovisual style and his usage of sparse, moody electronic soundtracks, Thief tells the story of a flawed, but tough criminal, who wants something better for himself, who has a flawed vision for how he wants to escape from his violent life of crime. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these themes are common in such other Michael Mann films as Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies. To say Michael Mann has go-to themes is a bit of an understatement; luckily, Thief is very much the prototype of these stereotypes, his work at his rawest.
Thief also features some truly amazing scenes, most notably a scene where a team of thieves tackle a giant safe with some very powerful welding equipment. The ensuing sparks (literally, sparks) provide one of the most impressive scenes I’ve seen on film.
For a debut film, Thief is shockingly confident and assured, taking risks and making bold choices, both in terms of storytelling and plot, as well as visual and audio style. While Thief is ostensibly a heist film, it has a decidedly darker and more violent feel to it than other popular heist films, both older ones like The Italian Job (the 1969 original) as well as modern films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Additionally, the third act of Thief is a surprisingly fresh direction for a heist film, one that yields a level of action uncommon for a movie of the era; it’s a great choice for the film.
A final note: For an actor as simultaneously prolific, and iconic, as James Caan, he has surprisingly few great films, and even fewer great starring roles. He’s an actor who has a lot of depth, and while he’s probably on the old side to have a Liam Neeson-esque career renaissance as an action hero, I’d really love to see him get some more good performances under his belt before he retires.