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Get ready for the most appealing cinematic combination ever: a movie starring Robert Redford (yes please) and Paul Newman (ooh, my) as dashing con artists (awesome) who plot to overthrow a Very Bad man (intriguing) who happens to be played by Robert Shaw a.k.a. Quint from Jaws (yessss).
Bonus: the entire thing is set to ragtime music—which, trust us, is amazing.
Basically, this movie is good stuff on good stuff with more good stuff as a garnish. It's the movie equivalent of a banana split: this thing was made to please.
Here's what goes down:
The movie opens with Johnny Hooker and his partners Luther Coleman and Joe Erie grifting a dude out of more than thirteen thousand dollars—which: fun times. But Johnny only finds out later from a crooked cop (Snyder) that he actually robbed a bagman working for Doyle Lonnegan, one of the most ruthless gangsters in America. Whoops—not-so-fun times.
Snyder knows Johnny's as good as dead if he (Snyder) hands him over to the mob, so Snyder tries to blackmail Johnny out of his share of his most recent score. But Johnny just hands him some counterfeit money and hightails it away…because Johnny's slick like that.
Or is he? Johnny goes to check on his partner, Luther, but arrives at the guy's house to find him murdered. RIP, Luther. At this point, Johnny decides to get out of town and head to Chicago to look up one of Luther's old conning buddies, Henry Gondorff. Johnny wants to pull off a huge con on Doyle Lonnegan to avenge Luther's death…and he knows that Henry is the only guy to teach him how to do it.
But when Johnny first meets Henry, he ain't all that impressed. Henry's a drunk who looks like he's burned out from a life of conning. But Johnny challenges him and Henry decides to take on the project. He immediately gets together all of his conman buddies and establishes a huge team for conning Lonnegan.
Oh, and for a scheme like this, Henry knows that he'll need a second "inside man" to make direct contact with Lonnegan for him. And just like that, Johnny has an important job to do.
Meanwhile, a pair of Lonnegan's assassins have tracked Johnny to Chicago and tried to kill him, but Johnny manages to give them the slip a couple of times. Henry knows that something's wrong, but Johnny won't tell him the truth. Uh oh: trouble in conman bromance paradise.
Henry and Johnny decide to go meet Lonnegan in one of the man's secret poker games. Henry—who's going under the name Shaw—heads straight into the game and cheats Lonnegan out of a whopping fifteen thousand dollars. Worse yet, he cheats right in front of Lonnegan's face…but Lonnegan can't say anything because he's cheating too.
Afterward, Johnny goes to Lonnegan posing as a lackey for "Shaw." He claims his name is Kelly, that he's sick of being pushed around by mean ol' Shaw, and that he's on Lonnegan's side. Johnny-as-Kelly pretends that he wants to take down Henry and that he has an elaborate scheme for doing so.
Johnny-as-Kelly tells Lonnegan that he has a betting system that allows him to already know the results to horse races before they're delivered to a local betting shop. Of course, the entire betting shop and everyone hanging out in it is fake and staffed with other conmen—this is part of the titular sting—but Lonnegan doesn't know that.
Over time, Johnny-as-Kelly manages to get Lonnegan's trust. But he runs into another problem when Lt. Snyder shows up in Chicago looking for him. At this point, the FBI gets involved in the whole thing. A guy named Special Agent Polk scoops up Snyder and Johnny and tells them that the FBI is going to take down Henry when he tries to spring his trap on Lonnegan.
Polk says he wants Snyder to make sure that he gets Lonnegan out of the betting shop the moment the FBI busts in. Johnny refuses to betray Henry, but backs down when Polk threatens to arrest the family of the dead Luther Coleman.
When he's not busy conning Lonnegan, Johnny hangs out at a diner and flirts with a grouchy waitress named Loretta. They eventually go home together and have sex. But the next morning, Johnny goes to meet her in an alley and a strange gunman shoots her in the head. Johnny's flabbergasted, but the gunman tells him that Loretta was an assassin hired by Lonnegan to kill Johnny. Henry Gondorff has hired this gunman to protect Johnny…and it looks like the guy has done his job.
Now it's time for Henry and Johnny to spring their trap on Lonnegan. The whole thing seems to go off without a hitch, but then the FBI busts in and arrests everyone. Henry realizes that Johnny betrayed him to the FBI and shoots Johnny dead. Whoa. Then Special Agent Polk steps up and shoots Henry dead. Whoa.
Lonnegan is aghast at what's going on, but Snyder's quick to grab him and pull him away from the action. Lonnegan can't stand losing half a million dollars, but Snyder reminds him he'll go to jail for a long time if he sticks around.
With Lonnegan and Snyder gone, both Johnny and Henry open their eyes and start laughing. Whoa again.
It turns out that the FBI bust has all been part of the Big Con. Now both Snyder and Lonnegan have been settled for good, since they both believe Henry and Johnny are now dead. Henry and Johnny end the movie by sharing a good laugh, and when Henry offers Johnny his share of the con money, Johnny turns it down and says he'd only blow it anyway.
Yup: our boy Johnny has learned a few new things, but it looks like some other things will never change.