Lightweight and never quite as laugh-out-loud funny as it should be, The Hot Rock is nonetheless a fun caper flick featuring one of Robert Redford’s most effortlessly charming performances. The movie also boasts a thoroughly entertaining screenplay by William Goldman, the wiseass wordsmith who penned Redford’s breakout movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In fact, Goldman and Redford clicked so well whenever they collaborated, it’s a shame their friendship dissipated after behind-the-scenes strife during the development of All the President’s Men (1976). Anyway, The Hot Rock was adapted from a novel by Donald E. Westlake, whose special gift is creating likeable crooks and outlandish plots. The Hot Rock begins with career thief John Dortmunder (Redford) getting released from his latest stint in prison—although he’s a talented robber, he has a bad habit of getting caught. Dortmunder is picked up, after a fashion, by his brother-in-law, Kelp (George Segal)—Kelp stole a car he doesn’t know how to drive, so he nearly runs Dortmunder over.
And so it goes from there: Dortmunder’s life becomes a comedy routine of incompetent criminality once he agrees to pull a job with the amiable but unreliable Kelp. The duo are hired by Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), the U.N. ambassador of a small African nation, to steal a gigantic diamond, but each attempt at nabbing the prize ends up a pathetic failure. Over the course of several weeks, Dortmunder and Kelp try stealing the diamond from a bank, a museum, a police station, and a prison, abetted by neurotic explosives expert Greenberg (Paul Sand) and reckless getaway driver Murch (Ron Leibman).
Goldman and versatile British director Peter Yates keep things moving along smoothly, balancing jokes and tension during elaborate heist scenes, so while The Hot Rock never explodes into raucous chaos, it sustains a solid energy level from start to finish. Yates shoots locations beautifully, capturing a vivid sense of Manhattan as an urban playground for the film’s gang of chummy nincompoops, and the acting is lively across the board. Redford plays everything so straight that he grounds the film’s comedy in emotional reality (while still cutting a dashing figure), and Leibman and Segal complement his work with motor-mouthed hyperactivity. Sand contributes a quieter vibe of sedate weirdness, and Gunn incarnates exasperation with great poise. Overbearing funnyman Zero Mostel pops up for a featured role about halfway through the picture, but luckily he’s only onscreen for short bursts, so he doesn’t wear out his welcome.
The Hot Rock: GROOVY