Stuart Ashen joined YouTube in Feb 2006 and has developed a long history of comedy videos that are a mixture of gadget reviews, food reviews, and other assorted nonsense. This hustling multi-hyphenate has developed short form and long form narratives in the form of Ideas Man (two seasons), Knighthood and Decoy (4 episodes), Another Game (2017), and Ashens and the Quest for Gamechild (2013). For his latest project, Ashens and the Polybius Heist, Ashen gathers together a motley crew of familiar and new faces in an adventure that’s perfectly nonsensical and delightfully daft. Polybius Heist is as much a straight heist flick as it is a farce of the subgenre in a way that feels directly in line with the ridiculousness of a Zucker Bros. comedy mashed up with a Monty Python sketch.
Dr. Ashens (Ashen) is a renowned collector of rare, yet utterly useless, collectables as the head of Ashens Collection Services, alongside his partner, Benny (Eli Silverman). While looking for a new recovery gig, the pair happen upon the plans for the long-believed fictional cabinet game Polybius. It’s considered the holy grail of the gaming world. They also discover it’s been purchased by Antony Agonist (Stuart Barter), a self-made millionaire who hates anything that’s not new in any medium. Suspecting that Agonist’s interest in Polybius, a game more than 30 years old, is something nefarious, the two decide to gather together a team to steal the machine right from under Agonist.
Imagine Ocean’s 11 (2001) meets Rififi (1955) meets Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and you’ll have an inkling of the scope Polybius Heist aims for and mostly succeeds in achieving. Not a small feat for a largely crowd-funded creation. Written by Ashen and Riyad Barmania, who also directs, the film is an obvious labor of love, an aspect that shows through in everything you see on screen. It’s one of the nicer looking indie films I’ve seen of late, which is notable as the film was seven years in the making and attempted to tell a large scale story on what’s clearly not a tent pole budget. Props are silly, but only situationally, not by some need to clamor for humor. Same with a variety of setups for jokes, some with immediate payoff and some that are planted for harvesting later. For instance, two members of the heist team are added in an effort to make an overt “Ashens’s 11” joke that’s never referenced again, but the two dudes are utilized later in a manner that is both silly and absolutely natural. Similarly, yet more subtly, there’s a wonderful little nod executed by Alyssa Kyria’s The Fixer and Yiannis Vassilakis’s Yiannis that’s shot as an echo to a classic scene featuring Bernie Mac as Frank Catton in the 2001 Ocean’s remake. These little nods deliver more satisfaction than the Mission: Impossible (1996) laser homage or Jarred Christmas’s Smooth Man being introduced in a send-up of Casino Royale (2006). Whether you get these references or not, Polybius Heist entertains and impresses on its own merits precisely because it recognizes its own comparatively low budget standards. To be clear, that isn’t to suggest that the film is cheap looking; rather, it’s that Polybius is what a heist would look like if you and your dumb friends decided to pull this off (see: American Animals) compared to some properly trained, highly skilled individuals. Because of this, Ashens’s 11 is going to steal your heart, though not much else.
Like all good heist films, there’s more than just the target at the center of the tale, and Polybius Heist revolves around a few of those things. This is where the heart of the film comes in. If it were all spy and heist jokes, Polybius would lose quite a bit of its luster and it’s this aspect that makes it most like Rififi. For context, Rififi is a fantastic heist film which features about 30 minutes of silence at the center of the picture and the rest deals with the fallout from the theft. Now Polybius doesn’t do anything that grand, but it does do something that bold. See, the beginning of the film sets it up that Ashens is a preservationist of sorts, so his trying to save the Polybius from someone who detests archaic tech makes sense, but if it were that simple, the film wouldn’t be as engaging. Instead, Ashen and Barmania insert some familial drama that raises the stakes beyond cultural conservation. Though still very much comedic, the true aim of the story is one which explores letting go of the past to bring peace in the present. The co-writers not only set that up beautifully amid the chaos and comedy of the heist aspects, but they manage to stick the landing that blends the absurd with the intuitive smoothly.
There’s this strange misconception that indie equates to high class and that low budget equates to cheap. Neither of these things are true and Ashens and the Polybius Heist is a great example of this in action. Quite simply, Polybius Heist is a fun romp of pure escapism. Some of the jokes are eye-rollingly painful, while others you can see coming a mile away, but, by-and-large, the whole of Polybius Heist feels like exactly what planning a heist with your friends would actually be like: messy, ridiculous, and great fun. More importantly, because of that feeling, it almost makes you feel like you’re going for the ride with them as opposed to just watching pretty people do bad things. In this case, it’s regular people doing their damnedest not to do stupid things and that’s all right by me.
Available on VOD and digital November 19th, 2020.
To learn how you can stream the film, head to the official Ashens and the Polybius Heist website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.