Heists in films rarely go right. In fact, the heist gone bad is a plot device that has been used over and over for decades. It adds drama. It adds tension. It adds excitement as the crooks run from the law. Often times, that’s what makes a heist movie so fun to watch, seeing how the characters get themselves out of a tight situation. A perfect heist can be interesting to watch, but doesn’t really enhance or create much conflict between characters by itself. That’s why heists gone wrong are much more frequent in film than heists which go off without a flaw.
There are many ways a heist can go wrong. This is an overview of some of the most common reasons, and a look at which films feature these blunders. Some films may have more than one factor that contributes to the failure of the heist, so they may appear more than once in this article. Some films may have a heist that goes off splendidly, yet something goes wrong afterwards that ruins the whole thing. We’ve accounted for those too.
***WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – Important twists and plot points for multiple films are discussed below. ***
As Seen in Films Like: Welcome to Collinwood, Ocean’s Eleven
This one’s pretty simple. Before or during the heist, one of the bandits gets hurt. Now that they’re hurt, they are incapacitated. They can’t or have difficulty performing the tasks that the team needs them to, so the operation struggles to continue. More importantly, not only is the hurt person now incapacitated or impaired in their ability to perform their tasks, but the team now requires other members to fulfil the tasks of the hurt person. Those people now need to do two tasks, since they still have to complete what they were originally assigned to do, but also they may not be as skilled as the incapacitated person at the second task. A memorable example is in Soderberg’s Oceans Eleven when “The Amazing” Yen injures his wrist during training which causes his cast to get snagged during the heist, almost getting him killed.
Reason: Impaired Thieves
As Seen in Films Like: Panic Room, Killing Zoe
Not only can a member of the team be physically injured, but it’s possible that they get high, drunk, or are otherwise mentally incapacitated. Such a condition creates the same ramifications as if that team member was injured. They simply can’t do their job as well as if they had a straight mind, and more importantly, their state of inebriation causes them to act erratically. Such irrational behavior can be just as harmful or worse towards the completion of the job, similarly as if that team member was simply unable to complete their job due to injury. Killing Zoe is one film in which the drug habits of the thieves inhibits their abilities, and enhances their suspicions to act as a cohesive team during a stressful heist.
Reason: Hostage/Vigilante Takes Action
As Seen in Films Like: Panic Room, Odd Man Out
The above reasons showed us that the thieves themselves can be unpredictable, but hostages, security guards, and cops are even more so. They are just normal people, running errands or doing their job like on any other day when the robbery happens. They are unexpectedly caught up in a crime, at the mercy of those who are committing it. They can be stressed out, fearful of death, or just trying to be the hero. So they snap. They may not make it out alive, but they put a large wrench in the heist plan which prevents it from going as planned, even as much as making it fail altogether, just like in Panic Room.
Reason: Taking Too Long
As Seen in Films Like: Straight Time, Point Break
Movies make it apparent that when you are trying to pull off a heist, you need to stick to the plan. One thing that needs to be known is how long it will take for the cops to show up, or at least have an estimate. The longer you take, the more the chance of failure is increased. Sometimes the thieves take too long because of greed, such as in Straight Time when Max tries to steal everything in a jewelry store instead of just part of it. Other times, it could be a result of desperation. In Point Break, the rule is to only take money out of the registers because it takes to long to get into the vault. On their last heist, Bodhi knows that this is his last chance, so he risks going for the money in the safe and the team ultimately pays the price.
Reason: Lack of Experience
As Seen in Films Like: Dog Day Afternoon, Welcome to Collinwood
A bad heist can be the result of bad robbers. Maybe it’s their first time. Maybe they have someone new on the team who hasn’t proven themselves yet. In Welcome to Collinwood, both of those things are the case. A ragtag team of wannabe convicts is in need of money and happen to have the details for what they think is a perfect heist. They try to pull it off, to disastrous results. A Dog Day Afternoon takes a more serious approach. In this film, a first-time robber is way over his head when things quickly escalate out of hand.
Reason: Betrayed by an Enemy
As Seen in Films Like: Heat
As in any other line of work, criminals have competition. This is especially true with heists, where the very idea or information needed to pull off a heist can be valuable information. It’s not uncommon in films to have the thieves put their lives on the line or betray others to keep or obtain these secrets or keep themselves safe. Ultimately they are looking out for themselves, and sometimes in order to avoid getting caught or to make more money, they have to make enemies in the criminal underworld. Those enemies will understandably be very upset, and as such, they may want to get some revenge. Heat is one such movie where a group of criminals steals from another criminal, only to have the man who they stole from tip off the police at a later heist for revenge.
Reason: Alerts Others
As Seen in FIlms Like: The Asphalt Jungle, The Bank Job
Sometimes a heist mistake in a film can be as simple as making too much noise. Heists require a certain level of secrecy, and if that secrecy is not maintained, bad things can happen. An alarm, for instance, is one of the most common devices put into place to prevent thieves from entering a place they should not. If it goes off, it alerts others that something is not right. It’s common to see thieves go to extra measures in order to prevent an alarm from going off, such as in The Asphalt Jungle. However, that particular heist goes wrong with the robbers accidentally set off the alarm in the building next door. In The Bank Job, it’s not an alarm that triggers a response by the police, but a conversation over the walkie talkies that someone picks up on accident.
Reason: Betrayed by an Ex
As Seen in FIlms Like: Bandits, Payback, The Town
The set-up is brilliant. A soured past relationship ends up sabotaging a heist. On one hand it shows how difficult setting up a perfect heist can be. The details of the heist must absolutely remain a secret. Even minute details that you otherwise wouldn’t necessarily try and hide could come back to bite you. In the case of The Town, that’s exactly what happens when the FBI pressures an ex-girlfriend to provide information. On the other hand, having an ex give away a heist to the authorities shows how important strong relationships can be. The thieves taking part in the heist not only have to worry about the trustworthiness of those in their own clan, but they also have to worry about other people that know them well that may want to try and cause damage. In Payback, the jealousy of an ex ends up results in Porter being double-crossed.
Reason: Complications with the Stash:
As Seen in Films Like: Ocean’s 11 (1960), A Fish Called Wanda, Blue Streak
The heist goes well and the crew make it out alive and uncaptured from the heist. The hard part may be over, but the heist isn’t complete until everyone gets their cut. Typically, the thing or things that are stolen can’t just be divided up among the team. If it’s jewels that have been stolen, a buyer has to be found. If it’s cash that has been stolen, all the money can’t be spent or deposited all at once. That would raise suspicions, and for a heist, suspicions need to be kept at a minimum. To avoid such issues, it’s not uncommon for the stolen goods to be stashed somewhere secure while everyone else just lies low for a while. In the original Ocean’s 11, that’s exactly the plan, except that the place they choose to hide the stolen money, a coffin, gets cremated before they have the chance at retrieval. A Fish Called Wanda depicts a similar issue, where the heist goes well enough, but problems arise afterwards when one of the crew moves the hiding spot of the stash which prevents the others from retrieving it, and the whole operation falls to pieces.
Reason: Betrayed by One of Their Own
As Seen in FIlms Like: Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, Payback, The Getaway, Rififi, Blue Streak, Drive, The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Heist, The Score
By far the number one reason a heist in a film fails is because of a betrayal by someone in the heist team. Double crosses are so common these days that you could even consider them a cliche for a crime film. That’s not to say that it is not an effective story element, quite the contrary. Having a team member steal or kill the others on his own team just to make off with the stolen goods is not only interesting, but makes sense in the real world. These are criminals that we are talking about after all, driven by greed. Some of them are just more desperate and greedy than others. They don’t like to share. It could be the character that you liked all along (The Usual Suspects), or maybe the new guy that no one trusts just living up to his characterization (Heist). At other times, you could have an undercover cop infiltrating the gang so that they can expose the crime (Reservoir Dogs).