Based on an actual U.K. bank robbery in the 1970s, Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job is ostensibly a heist picture, but by the film’s end, I was convinced the label was a misnomer. Instead, it’s a con flick, in which everyone in the audience is the mark, and the film is counterfeit.
As with all cons, the setup is certainly promising. A political radical nabs photos of a British princess engaged in . . . let’s call it “lewd activity.” Britain’s security services, not wanting the pictures to get out, hatch a plan to steal the negatives out of the bank in which they are stored. They don’t want to be connected to the break-in, so they surreptitiously recruit a band of low-level criminal dabblers, led by Terry Leather (Jason Statham) through one of his former girlfriends, Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), who conveniently happens to need help beating a drug charge. One thing they forgot, however, is that the bank’s vault holds more than the photos: Numerous individuals engaged in London’s seedier activities store their valuables there, and are none too happy to see it opened up, creating an additional set of complications as the heist and its consequences play out.
It sounds overly complicated, but it makes sense enough in context, and some of the complexities can probably be explained due to the story’s reported real-life origins, many of which remained mysterious till recently, but which were apparently related via an informant
to the screenwriters.
But all the revelations in the world can’t hide the fact that, while the original break-in might have been something of a success, the film never gets the goods. And much of the blame has to go to the director. In theory, most of Donaldson’s movies ought to be top-class Hollywood entertainment. With their high-gloss production values, generous portions of steamy sex and gratuitous violence, and easy-on-the-eyes stars, there’s no reason they ought to be anything other than respectably lurid big-screen escapades — not classics, maybe, but certainly able thrillers. In almost every case, however, everything seems right on the surface, but something important is clearly missing. It’s like sitting down inside a sparkling new Corvette only to find there’s no engine whatsoever under the hood.
Of course, there’s no denying the exterior can seem plenty enticing. Donaldson’s no slouch behind the camera, and for all the film’s faults, it looks resplendent. London gets lit with dim, moody hues — deep browns, golds, and greys with a smattering of pastels — that feel like photos aged from the era, except more vibrant. The period details pop, especially the era-evocative outfits, which are overdone just enough to call attention to themselves without seeming unrealistic. And to sweeten the deal, Donaldson has attracted a bevy of alluring faces. In this case, that means Statham and Burrows, two former models, to play the leads with the requisite dicey relationship history. But like so much in the film, what looks good on the outside turns out to be empty on the inside.
The pair of models look sharp but are given little to do, and they can’t seem to produce any heat together; the moments in which they express their tentative feelings for one another are about as exciting as a test pattern. The screenplay barely bothers to disguise the fact that Burrows mainly serves as an expository tool, showing up to let Statham know about the gig and giving Donaldson something to point his camera toward when the action slows down. Statham’s out of his element, too. He’s always been far better as a B-movie hood hero than the repressed, classier protagonist he’s forced to play here. His best moment comes toward the end when he finally lets loose and gets in a scuffle with a couple of the baddies. And despite Donaldson having scored a raft of top-notch British character actors, outside of the two leads, the rest of the cast members barely register, making it tough to gin up any feelings one way or the other when it comes time to care about each one’s fate.
Indeed, it’s clear that Donaldson has no idea how to use any of the resources at his disposal. He aims for a mix of the shimmering coolness of Ocean’s 11 and the manic, over-clocked mayhem of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and then, in an awkward bid for gravitas, stirs in an extra dollop of political intrigue. But the result is one of the most tonally inconsistent films in recent memory. I couldn’t tell whether the film was a lighthearted bank-robbery pic, an edgy crime comedy, a gritty mob movie, or a political thriller. Walking out of the theater, I swear I had aches from genre whiplash.
Meanwhile, the film can’t even get titillation right. There’s more than enough gruesome violence and graphic sex packed into the picture (too much, I’d say, by far) — for the first half hour I wondered if the screenwriter was under orders not to go more than two scenes without tromping off on a foray into R-rated kink. But even these bits feel crammed in and overly calculated; not only do they add little to the story, they don’t even work as exploitation.
It’s not a total failure, though. One thing the filmmakers did get right is the name. Sitting through the full hour and fifty minutes of The Bank Job definitely feels like work; anyone hoping to find a quality heist film is likely to go home feeling swindled.
– Peter Suderman is editor of Doublethink Online. He blogs at the American Scene.