March 10, 2008

A Thankless Job

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I never thought I’d say it, but I miss Guy Ritchie. After watching The Bank Job, I can appreciate his blend of antic mayhem and criminal mischief. His movies have the emotional resonance of a pair of pliers, but at least they move at a nice clip. The same can’t be said for Roger Donaldson’s serviceable heist flick. What can be said? It’s capably executed and has a few laughs but lacks panache.

Appropriately, the movie revolves around a bank robbery (so if you were expecting a small movie about a guy who works at a bank, think again sucker). But, this is no ordinary bank robbery. One of the film’s distinctions is that, unlike say Ocean’s 13, it begins with that most dubious of cinematic phrases — claims that it is “based on true events.”

The story — however true it may or may not be — goes like this. A British intelligence agency is desperate to get its hands on some incriminating photos of Princess Margaret in the possession of a pimp, drug dealer and self-styled radical named Michael X. To do so they instigate a robbery of the local London bank where he keeps these photos in a safe deposit box. But, rather than confiscate these photos outright, they outsource the job to a ragtag group of ruffians, led by Terry Leather (Jason Statham) and organized by Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), a former model and Terry’s childhood friend. This bunch is charged with robbing the bank, while Martine secretly grabs the photos and hands them over to MI5.

The heist itself is shocking only in its adherence to convention and formula. The villains rent out a store near the bank and proceed to tunnel between the two locations until they are under the vault. Once inside, they rob the vault, get their money and escape to warmer climates. Everything goes according to play except that very last section, which is always the trickiest part, isn’t it?

The robbers are ready to hightail it to paradise, but it turns out that a few of the safe-deposit box owners are powerful, angry men who want their possessions back and — wait for it — they’ll do anything to secure their return. What it comes down to is a face-off between the surviving robbers, the government, and Lew Vogel, another slum lord and pimp, as our heroes are caught in the middle, holding all the cards with a gun stuck to the back of their heads. Whether they extricate themselves, and how, I’ll leave you to find out. To be frank, though, by the end of the film I didn’t much care whether they survived.

While Statham and Co. do a fine job playing scuzzy British low-lifes with a surprising amount of charm, they can’t hold up a poor plot (maybe Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais should’ve stuck to fiction). The Bank Job take too long to get going and once it does start moving it never gets up to full speed. Also, while I rarely feel qualified to comment on things like cinematography and camera-work, it seemed that every conversation between two people were exclusively shot in tightly focused two-shots, as though they weren’t able to afford to waste any film bringing the camera back for a wider shot or letting it wander.

Part of the movie’s problem, I think, can be explained by a Terrence Rafferty piece in The New York Times about the heist genre. In it, he wrote that “heist pictures are all about process, technique, mechanics; the blind accidents are what keep them human.” The problem with The Bank Job is that it was only process, technique and mechanics and little more. Watching the movie was like watching an assembly line turn out cars; the complexity is impressive, but it’s still not something you particularly want to see again.