Partway through Bandits, Kate (Cate Blanchett) is asked to choose between her two bank-robber lovers, Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy Bob Thornton). The guys are buddies from way back (early in the film they break out of prison together, plowing through the front gate in a cement truck), but now that they’ve both slept with the spectacularly willful Kate, each wants his claim to her made clear. Angrily, they confront one another, and then turn to Kate for a resolution. But she decides not to decide, declaring that making such a choice would be a simplistic solution to a complicated situation. Bewildered, the men protest and hem and haw. And then they agree—at least initially—to her terms.
So far, so like Jules and Jim meets Bonnie and Clyde. And of course, Kate is right: the situation is complicated. And, as Barry Levinson’s romance-caper movie is nothing if not predictable, you know that it will only become more so. To start, Joe and Terry aren’t just ordinary bank robbers. They’re famous, featured on television as the “sleepover bandits,” so named because they spend the night before each robbery at some hapless bank manager’s suburban home, then steal the money the next morning, without violence or even much fuss. Viewers of a tv show called Criminals At Large, an America’s Most Wanted-type series hosted by the egotistical Darren Head (Bobby Slayton), take a liking to them, and some victims appreciate the brush with celebrity they offer. Joe himself believes the hype—that they are “Robin Hoods”—insisting that they “never stole a penny from anyone who earned it,” only federally insured bank stashes. Still, the analogy is strained and self-serving: as far as I can tell, they keep the money they steal. Though maybe Joe does “give back,” when he spends his cut on booze, hotels, and hookers, much to Terry’s distress.
Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969
Indeed, like most all movie buddies, Joe and Terry are set up as “opposites”: Joe is the intuitive man of action and little thought, Terry is the man of too much thought, neurotically planning every detail of their exploits (“The hardest thing about being smart,” he says, “is that you always know what’s going to happen next”). Conveniently, this combination appears to be just what Kate is looking for. She shows up some 20 minutes into the film, literally running into Terry with her car. She’s running away from her diffident businessman husband; he’s running from the cops, having just abandoned his out-of-gas car (apparently, he doesn’t always know what’s going to happen next). Worried that she’s injured him, Kate offers Terry a ride to the hospital, and he responds by trying to carjack her vehicle. But Kate’s at the end of her rope and just drives faster (shades of Nothing to Lose). “You’re insane!” observes Terry. “I’m unhappy,” she says brusquely, “There’s a difference.”
Such moments make Bandits more watchable than it might have been. Blanchett is riveting in a part that never gels. Perhaps best known for her brilliant dramatic performances in Elizabeth and Oscar and Lucinda, or maybe the small part she had in The Talented Mr. Ripley, she brings to Kate relative depth, no small thing, considering the clichis arrayed against her. Kate is a slightly elaborated version of the usual girl-in-between-two-buddies, primarily serving as reassurance that the men are indeed heterosexual. At the time she shows up, these buddies also have something resembling a third term in tow, their goofy driver, Harvey (Troy Garity), an aspiring Hollywood stuntman and self-styled FX expert (if you know anything about caper flicks, you know that detail will become crucial in the denouement). Though everyone sees that it’s a bad idea, Kate becomes the gang’s “permanent hostage,” when for some reason, Joe the habitual womanizer is smitten (this because of and despite Terry’s warning, “Kate’s an iceberg waiting for the Titanic”). But after she beds each one—separately—both come up with their own reasons for loving her, or more precisely, for being sucked into her mostly cheery manic-depressive vortex. Where intellectual, neurotic Terry likes her impulsiveness and passion, action-oriented Joe puts it more reductively: “She’s got saliva,” meaning, he explains, she kisses well.
His investigation of her moist delights begins with a scene lifted from It Happened One Night: they share a bed, separated by a blanket hanging from the ceiling (clever Joe acknowledges his inspiration: “I saw it in a movie”). As Terry listens in from the other room, Joe and Kate discover they share a special affection for Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” quoting together, “Once upon a time, I was falling in love / Now I’m only falling apart!” (Though Joe calls it the “ultimate sappy chick song,” he does know all the words, which apparently proves his worthiness, for Kate.) By contrast, her first night with Terry begins when he lists a few of his many hypochondriacal symptoms. Turns out that Kate’s a willing nurse, and besides, she says, she appreciates his ostensible intellect.
Okay, Kate’s a little strange, but wacky dames are the usual impetus for great screwball, sometimes even subversive, comedy. Though it looks like it might have been fun to make (Blanchett gets to paint Thornton’s toenails to show their evolving closeness, rather than actually having to snuggle with Angelina Jolie’s husband), Bandits never becomes subversive or screwball. True, Kate declares herself an “outlaw” when she refuses to choose between her lovers (whose own criminality, of course, needs no announcement or defense, since men who rob banks automatically qualify), but she’s only able to measure herself in standard romantic and domestic terms.
The emotional three-way proceeds until, inevitably, the men can stand it no longer. One night they begin fighting, awkwardly flailing at one another’s faces, falling through a plate glass window, scrambling over themselves in the dirt. Kate watches for a minute, then loses her patience. Though she declares that together, they form the “perfect man” (whatever that might mean), as individuals, they really are too silly. Tossing her outrageously red hair, she throws up her hands and yells out loud enough that Joe and Terry actually pause their wrestling and drop their jaws: “This is over!” Would that it were. But no, there’s a bit more non-action that needs to happen for Bandits to find its ostensibly happy ending. And so, the film continues to offer up retread movie moments, including a return to its Swordfish-like opening scene, where the boys are trapped in a bank with fearful hostages, surrounded by half the LAPD, and arguing vehemently with one another over—wouldn’t you know?—the lovely, vivacious, and ever-so-desirable Kate.
But by this point, it’s become clear that the movie is not about her, bit about how she benefits, shapes, and adds detail to them. In fact, Bandits‘s most potentially rambunctious, if not exactly innovative, relationship belongs to Terry and Joe. It’s increasingly obvious that they use Kate to work through their own co-dependency and intimacy issues, and well… let’s just say that this particular film isn’t going to consider that possibility. Such convoluted, anxious-making male bonding is familiar ground for director Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Sleepers). And in what may be this incessantly self-conscious film’s most self-conscious sequence, the guys act out their relationship in an appropriately hysterical and mediated context. As a way to manipulate their fans and the cops, Joe and Terry grant an interview to Darren Head. Moments from this interview appear throughout Bandits (and as outtakes during closing credits), as if to underline the elaborate performance of their camaraderie. This may be their saving grace: at some level, Terry and Joe know what they are, generic buddies in a generic buddy film, no matter how delicious Kate and her saliva.