These are the 5 best L.A. heist movies

A man in a white jacket steers a car.
Ryan Gosling in the movie “Drive.”
(FilmDistrict / Bold Films / OddLot Entertainment)

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.

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‘Ambulance’ (2022)

Helicopter chase an ambulance under a bridge.
A scene from the movie “Ambulance,” directed by Michael Bay.
(Universal Pictures)

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)

Five fashionably dressed young people walk on a sidewalk.
Taissa Farmiga, left, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Katie Chang and Claire Julien in the movie “The Bling Ring.”
(Merrick Morton / A24)

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 schoolers were never going to get away with it, but for a while, their run is consequence-free.


‘Drive’ (2011)

A man sits behind the steering wheel.
Ryan Gosling in the movie “Drive.”
(FilmDistrict / Bold Films / OddLot Entertainment)

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)

Two men in suits sit in a diner booth, one with his back to the camera.
Al Pacino, left, and Robert De Niro in the movie “Heat.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)


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)

A man on the floor on his back points a gun at the gun-pointing man standing over him
Steve Buscemi, left, and Harvey Keitel in the movie “Reservoir Dogs.”

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.