‘Lift’: Kevin Hart Heist Thriller Never Gets off the Ground

In spite of all the on-board hazards, “Lift” is too smooth a ride for Kevin Hart. He is tuned up, in top physical shape for another action star turn, but toned down. Directed by F. Gary Gray, “Lift” fills all the action genre expectations. We are treated to boat chases through Venice canals, near-mid-air collisions over the English Channel; fast cars, foot races, fireballs and midair mixed martial arts maneuvers — upside down no less. Every situation would be nerve-wracking if only there were emotional danger in the mix. 

A heist film is a con, aided by missed calculations and abetted by misdirection, but “Lift” follows the flight plan. We never get the sense that anything can go wrong at any time to take everything down. Gray, who previously made “The Italian Job,” puts all the peril in the payoff, and pads the plan with an assured perfection. The teams are formidable, international, and unified. The stakes are high. The situation is impossible. But it’s all under control. Even when “The Engineer,” Luke (Viveik Kalra), goes off track. Every hurdle has a workaround, and it’s all been taken into account. 

Kevin Hart’s Cyrus “The Boss” Whitaker is a very successful, some might say artistic thief, who shows great versatility in his crimes. He is not a specialist. The Boss leaves such details to his crew of extremely proficient experts. Caught in a play to steal a Van Gogh, they catch the ear of Interpol, who task the team with stealing $100 million in gold from all-around bad guy Lars Jorgensen (Jean Reno). Phrases like “saving people’s lives” are thrown around long after they’re funny. Jorgensen’s henchmen look so much like hired thugs, it’s a wonder they could get on any passenger plane without a full body search. Bribery can only go so far.

This is no farce or spoof, and there are very few setups for punchlines. These are saved to fill plot holes. The humor is low-key and conversational, which leaves the heavy comic lifting to the special effects, absurd reality, and the ridiculous situations they conspire to project. Úrsula Corberó’s Camila is called “the pilot” of the heist team. She plays it straight as her Tokyo in “Money Heist,” even when an aerial maneuver flips her into a Pippi Longstocking-dancing-on-a-ceiling. Camila never loses balance.

Cyrus is measured to the point of non-dimensional, in spite of all the twists and turns going on in Hart’s mind as he ponders every response. Cyrus doesn’t get angry, he rarely gets flustered, and the audience always knows he’s got something worked out. Hart’s best scenes come with Vincent D’Onofrio. His Denton brings the most mystery to the game, and not only because he buries himself in disguises and likes to refer to himself as Oliver. He’s more of an aging Artful Dodger than Bill Sikes, in spite of nods and winks to Oliver Reed. The audience doesn’t know why Denton costumes himself the way he does. Denton himself may not know, and it resonates. The only other possible internal damage could come from the safecracker Magnus, but only because Billy Magnussen plays him with such affable gusto, we can’t help but think it’s an act. His pledge of loyalty is so heartfelt it should come with cardiac arrest immunity insurance underwritten by international cops.

Cyrus and Denton say much more with much less, shortcutting their history with glances. Interpol agent-with-former-benefits, Abby (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), needs to have the rulebook spelled out in its entirety before Cyrus gets a chance to break any. But don’t expect “Life” to turn into a mid-air “It Takes a Thief.” The agent does not get in the way of the criminal mind. Cyrus’ team breaks laws of physics, not audience expectation. In his 2004 comedy “Soul Plane,” Hart started his own airline. In “Lift,” Cyrus uses his Interpol power to purloin a more-than-state-of-the-art private jet, pimped out with every available, and many unattainable, gadget conceived to ease the fear of flying. Nothing is wasted. A stripper pole will be a line of defense in an extreme ad hoc hostage negotiation at gunpoint. 

Kim Yoon-ji gets far too little screen time as Mi-Su, The Hacker, who spends most of her own time with her face buried in LED screens. She establishes herself as a tech world delivery system in the opening gambit, when the crew borrow an NFT-seller who calls himself N8 (Jacob Batalon), mid-auction, in order to secure a legal sale. 

The heist at the center of the movie may be a future artistic artifact or a passing fad, but “Lift” doesn’t have enough turbulence to gain traction at the departure gate. There is nothing vague in the con, even when the audience knows which shell they should have been watching. The scheme is a little too rote, and much too easy to predict. Hart makes all the right choices for his character, and it works against him. 

Lift” begins streaming Jan. 12 on Netflix.