Per the recommendation of Sonny Bunch, I saw The Bank Job last night, and liked it. An interesting movie with a lot of different tones that made me wish I was British. (Anyone know what the Brits refer to the police as "the Old Bill"?)
But one thing in particular stuck out at me: The Bank Job would be unworkable as a story set in America.
Leave aside the fact that it's based on a true story which took place in London, obviously. The reason the The Bank Job couldn't be set in the states is because of guns. Access to firearms changes the dynamics of plotting, in ways which I'm not sure are particularly good.
Sonny makes the very astute point that the great joy of heist movies lays not just in the heist itself--we know it's going to be successful, otherwise we wouldn't have the movie. Rather, the interesting part is what happens after the heist--how the characters divide the loot, deal with each other, escape the law and/or other villains.
In superior heist movies, this becomes an exercise in systems engineering, where the robbers are trying to create a mechanism that will get their pursuers off their backs, allow them to keep some of the spoils, and often achieve the release of a hostage. What makes it interesting is that every party has something the other parties want and the parties have asymmetrical information and resources. The goal for the story is to devise an interesting way for the hero to solve what is essentially a big game theory scenario. That's exactly what happens in The Bank Job.
But here's the thing: Guns short-circuit the exercise. When the hero is trying to outsmart his pursuers, it often devolves into simply getting to the rendezvous point earlier and having an unseen team member working as a sniper. Any time the parties interact, there's the potential for gun-play, which often takes the place of plot mechanics. From the drive-in theater hand-off in Heat to the Tim Roth/Sam Jackson standoff in Pulp Fiction, guns make things simpler.
In That Bank Job, our hero arranges a complicated situation where he brings multiple parties together in a precise choreography in order to achieve his goals (I'm being oblique so as not to spoil things here), and the scene only works because the hero knows that none of the villains will be carrying guns. If everyone has a Mac 10 under their coat, then things have to be much simpler.
I'm sure that to some screenwriters, guns are a boon, because they simultaneously cut down on the amount of heavy-lifting you have to do with plot and up the stakes by placing everyone in immediate mortal peril. But that probably results in fewer interesting movies.
The Bank Job delivers they type of satisfying stuff you want from a heist movie. And I wouldn't mind seeing more gangster/heist films set in the U.K.'s recent past, if for no other reason than to clear the guns out of the way and force the writers to work a little harder.
33 minutes ago