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April 04, 2009

DVD Review: The Bank Job


I've seen a lot -- a lot -- of movies lately I haven't been inspired to review. They were all so-so. Worth a watch, I guess, but just as easily missed. The Watchmen, Push, I Love You Man, Taken... All decent, but all would get the review Watchable.

The only movie I've seen lately I want to actively recommend is the Jason Statham caper/thriller The Bank Job.

First of all, some love for Jason Statham: Like Kurt Russel, he's a B-level actor who gets B-level scripts and B-level directors but he rarely makes a bad movie. He has his choice of all the crappier scripts floating around Hollywood, but, like Mr. Reliable Kurt Russell, he has a knack for picking out the best of the worst, and churning out solid entertainments each time.

Did you guys see Crank? How atrocious did you think that gimcrack gimmick of a movie would be? And yet... actually, kinda good (albeit in a cheesy way).

I don't particularly like the Transporter franchise, but, for what it is -- B-movie actioners -- they're okay. Between a Transporter flick and Steven Segal's latest effort to play an ethnic (but pointedly not Jewish) ponytailed monk, hey, easy call.

As to The Bank Job itself: It's "inspired by true events," but the events in question are secret -- by official British government policy, actually; the details are classified until 2054 or thereabouts -- so the screenwriter has a lot of room to, what's the word, just make shit up. But the shit he makes up is plausible and hell, some of it might actually be true.

The set-up: It's 1971 (and the clothes evoke the period without being over the top and distracting).

Jason Statham, who's a used car dealer most likely trafficking in stolen vehicles (it's not clear, but he's shady in a low-level way) owes a lot of money to loan sharks or bookies, and they periodically drop in on him to smash up his inventory and make threats against his body. He's not a professional criminal, but seems to pursue some small-bore criminality on the side -- more of a hobby than a vocation.

Saffron Burrows (the tall, willowy British girl from Deep Blue Sea) is a former model who knows Statham from the old neighborhood; she's escaped her lower-class roots, but still seems to have some fondness for her old mate. She makes Statham an offer: Help me burglarize a bank vault. She says she knows the motion-sensitive temblors have been deactivated, owing to the fact that there is subway construction in the area and they're always being set off accidentally.

Statham asks how on earth she could possibly know that. She says she's friends with the bank manager, and he's just joking about it, "in a state" because his bank is currently vulnerable.

Statham sort of buys that but not completely. But he wants better for his wife and daughter, so he begins assembling "villains" from the old neighborhood for the job, who are similarly amateur, half-assed criminals like himself. Not a one of them knows anything about breaking into a bank, but what the hell. Saffron Burrows says it's easy, and look at her legs.

Now what Statham doesn't know is that Saffron Burrows was recently busted for smuggling a large amount of heroin into England. And MI-5 -- the internal spy service in England -- has recruited her for this job, in exchange for immunity.

It seems that a member of the royal family -- Princess Margaret -- was photographed in a three-way. And that the pictures are in possession of a left-wing black-power rabble-rouser and Trinidadian criminal named "Michael X" -- yes, he really existed, look it up; he took his name from Malcolm. The British cops want to deport him for his political agitation -- as well as his pimping, slumlording, loansharking, and murdering -- but can't, because he's blackmailing them. Make a move on him and the pictures of Princess Margaret's three-way go out to the press.

The pictures are, of course, kept in a bank vault. MI-5 can't subpoena the pictures -- they'd be leaked -- and they don't dare use their own men to rob the bank, for fear of being caught. So they've decided to subcontract the job out to some jackass semi-hoods. If the operation goes bad, they reason, they can easily insulate themselves from embarrassment just by murdering Saffron Burrows.

So the bank heist is on: Statham and his crew think they're robbing a bank for money. Burrows, who's with them all along, only wants the contents of Box 118. She's not acting against their interests, but she is withholding some very important information from them.

But there are other things of interest in the vault -- including a pimp/brothelier's ledger of payouts to crooked cops as well as his own blackmail pictures of members of parliament frequenting his whorehouses. And of course they take that too, not realizing what it is.

The first half of the movie plays more as a lighthearted lark of a caper. The latter half, though, becomes more tense as Statham and his crew realize all the people who now want them arrested and/or dead. Mostly dead:

-- MI-5, which is increasingly worried that its operation has gone catastrophically bad and is debating whether or not to kill everyone involved.

-- Michael X and his crew of Trinidadi killers.

-- The pimp/brothel owner, determined to get his ledger and his blackmail photos back.

-- The corrupt cops, whose names are in the ledger. They're not looking to arrest the thieves -- they want to torture and then kill them.

And then there are the straight cops, who, despite interference from MI-5, are determined to solve the case just because it's their job.

Most crime pictures are either lighthearted capers or gritty procedurals. The Bank Job is a bit of a feathered fish, deciding on walking the fine line between the two categories. The problem with feathered fishes is that they usually can't fly and also can't swim.

This could have been a big problem -- pick one genre and go with it! -- but the film does manage to walk its own path pretty well. When the film shifts gears from happy-go-lucky thievery to desperation and brutality, the change in tone is barely noticed. (I know from the commentary the director worried greatly about this; but he seems to have managed it okay, by giving just enough hints of the hell to come early on so that it's not entirely unexpected.)

The movie isn't great. And the feathered fish problem does hurt it somewhat -- it's a bit grim, so they can't really make it a spirited comedy, but it's also sort of comical, so they can't really go full-out with the suspense and violence. But the hybrid nature of it still works, and it still delivers both chuckles and real tension.

How much? Well, I'm sort of a tough crowd, but halfway through, I said aloud but to nobody, "God, I hope they get away with this."

Statham and Burrows manage to be likable enough that you really care if they're caught... or killed.

To get back to the "inspired by real events" nature of this: The break-in was a sensation in the press, made even more so due to the fact that an amateur ham radio operator had picked up and recorded their walkie-talkie chatter of the crime in progress. Tapes that were played for the public, in hopes that someone might recognize the voices.

After a few days the British government "D-noticed" the story, meaning the press could no longer report on it for national security reasons. And suddenly the press, which had been covering the story nonstop and playing tape recordings of the thieves on the radio, couldn't even mention that a bank had been robbed at all.

It's that fact that has made the screenwriter suspicious that there was a lot more going on here than a run of the mill heist, and gives him the maneuvering room to concoct all this skullduggery. And it just so happens that shortly after the robbery, a lot of scandals involving police and politicians surfaced.

Incidentally, it was directed by Roger Donaldson, who doesn't seem to work much lately, but turned in a crackerjack thriller in No Way Out.

The movie profits from the low expectations one comes to it with -- Good Lord, the title? The Bank Job? Can you think of a blander or less promising title? -- but once again Jason Statham manages to turn what could have been a witless stinker into a solid entertainment.

One warning: Statham is not in action-hero mode here. I think he punches one guy in the whole movie. He's not an action hero; he's an everyman out of his depth. He's convincing at it, too. But I thought I'd warn you about that in case you were expecting high kicks and oil-fights.

Oh, and the Politics: I suppose this movie is apolitical, in the sense that a leftwing black-power thug is a villain, but then, so are many of the cops and politicians. Presumably part of the "right wing" power structure.

However, it's rare to see a guy like Michael X depicted in a less than flattering light, as all of his slogans are revealed as the posturings of a nasty hood.

Like The Simpsons or South Park, The Bank Job seems "conservative" not because it really is conservative, but just willing to hit both sides.

And this Michael X guy? Awful. The movie also plays up Tom Wolfe's critique of the comfortably wealthy liberal class who took such a fancy to "authentic" killers. Bits of the film seem inspired by Radical Chic.

But it doesn't dwell on that. It just sort of hits that note and moves on.

The moment I saw the character I thought, "Oh God, here it comes, leftwing politics down my throat." And then the shock -- wait, this guy is a villain?

This is all a sideshow, just background. The movie is about a heist and not about politics at all. Still, it's rare thing that a movie even suggests that some of the heroes on the left are in need of a good hanging.

Oh: Here's the even more absurd sequel to Crank.

He died... but he got better!

Speaking of the Quality Control of Kurt Russell... I've recommended Sky High before. I'm doing so again. It's basically The X-Men as directed by John Hughes.

It's funny, it's fun, it's cute, it's clever. It's a "kid movie," sure, but it plays even better or adults. Especially adults who like superheroes.

If you have kids, you have to rent this for them. If you don't have kids, you have to suck it up and rent it anyway.

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posted by Ace at 12:35 PM

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