It’s a wild ride: introducing the insanely literal action movie The Hurricane Heist

Could one of the most daring and audacious action movies of the year really be a direct-to-iTunes film about a heist during a hurricane? Luke Buckmaster explains why he was blown away by The Hurricane Heist

What an opener! A banged-up pick-up truck with a father and his two young sons in it hurtles down a country road as an apocalyptically fierce storm raises hell around them. The wind roars; the rain pelts; the skies are angry. “Dad, faster!” one of the boys cries, seconds before a tree the height of an apartment building topples over and almost crushes them.

The truck careens off-road and becomes lodged in mud. The boys take refuge in an old wooden house while dad desperately attempts to dislodge the vehicle, battling winds so fierce he can barely stand. This weather makes the tornado in Twister look like the breeze that blew around a plastic bag in American Beauty.

The action is breathtakingly fast, the plot up to this point comprising less than 90 seconds of running time. The scene screeches towards climax when a huge steel storage tank lifts off the ground and tumbles over dad, killing him. The house the boys are in lifts of its foundation and the boys slide down the floor – which is now diagonally slanted – as furniture tumbles and windows shatter.

The sides of this rickety old house crumble to dust as the boys, helpless, keep sliding and screaming. They look up at the now non-existent roof and walls, into a traumatised skyline. Clouds combine to form the face of a demon roaring from the heavens. The credits appear: ‘The Hurricane Heist’.

Cripes. It took me several valiums and a couple of counselling sessions to recover from those insane introductory moments. As the high concept title indicates, director Rob Cohen (whose other films include The Fast and the Furious, xXx and Daylight) combines disaster porn with more typical action genre hullabaloo: a car chase here, an elaborate theft there.

Will (Toby Kebbell) is one of the boys in the pre-credits sequence who, all grown up, tries with no luck to convince authorities a terrible hurricane is about to hit. The other brother’s name is – wait for it – Breeze (Ryan Kwanten). Both get caught up, along with Treasury agent Casey (Maggie Grace), in a criminal plot orchestrated by robbers, who plan to use catastrophic weather as a distraction so they can steal hundreds of millions from the US Treasury.

This genre-bending premise must have appealed from a business point-of-view; one imagines a keyed up screenwriter reciting the pitch: “It’s Twister…meets The Italian Job!” And indeed if you are looking for an action-packed popcorn flick involving a heist and a hurricane, this movie will not disappoint. However the screenwriters (Scott Windhauser and Jeff Dixon, based on a story by Anthony Fingleton and Carlos Davis) do a lot more than just milk a high concept.

They create a very interesting – and unquestionably bleak – study of humankind as a sort of highly evolved vulture. The film fingers multiple groups of people (including the police) who, in the worst of times, looking in the face of utter disaster, exploit terrible situations for their benefit rather than coming together for the greater good.

The cast do what they can with dialogue sometimes laughably on the nose, and sometimes knowingly flaky. Exhibit A: when a character tells Willy “I’ve never met anybody so afraid of the very thing they’re fascinated by” (on the nose). Exhibit B: “We are what we are Willy. Can’t change people, and you sure as shit can’t change hurricanes” (knowingly flaky).

The film’s shortcomings can be forgiven because there is always so much else happening in its aesthetic and plot. Cohen’s pacing is nothing if not disciplined and The Hurricane Heist is arresting on several levels. If another of this year’s most memorable action movies, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is slicker and more competently staged, Cohen’s film is more daring and inventive, including the provision of motion as a kind of carnage-strewn scaffolding for the drama.

At different points in their careers the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and the great Italian director Sergio Leone realised the value in a simple trick: using fans – big industrial ones – to enhance their mise en scene. In both directors’ oeuvres all sorts of things blow around, from tumbleweeds to grass to human hair and dress (Kurosawa was particularly brilliant with the weather).

Cohen and cinematographer Shelly Johnson take the idea that weather equals motion equals dynamic compositions to another, cranked-to-eleven level. The drama in The Hurricane Heist either transpires at a point where a scenery-destroying force is just about to hit, dripping dread onto current proceedings, or where the characters’ interactions play out in the context of something much bigger and more calamitous happening around them. This both intensifies the drama while reducing its significance (human affairs paling in comparison to the might of Mother Nature). The film’s compositions are graded to look stormy and cloudy – with scaled back colour schemes and shades of grey, as if this entire world exists in a shadow.

On both the first and second occasion I watched the film, I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that The Hurricane Heist might be about not being able to put the genie back in the bottle. But what’s the bottle and what’s the genie? The huge skull-like thing roaring in the sky might be a clue, given how odd it is. There is virtually no other supernatural elements or imagery of this kind, and the mystery of the angry apparition remains unsolved. Who would have thought a film that operates so literally (it really is about a heist during a hurricane) would also be intensely symbolic?