“You’ve always been looking for the big score,” Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) tells Terry Leathers (Jason Statham), “the one that makes sense of everything.” Sounds like she’s got his number. Or maybe she’s just seen too many heist movies. In either case, Martine has jumpstarted The Bank Job, in which she’s formerly Terry’s girlfriend and currently bedding an MI5 agent, Everett (Richard Lintern), who, as it turns out, has her number.
Based on a famous real-life robbery, in which thieves stole some £500,000 in 1971, Roger Donaldson’s generic exercise conjures explanations as to how the whole business went down, including the reason for a government gag order that left details unexplained even as four men went to jail and another, a black militant named Michael X (played in the film by Peter De Jersey), was hanged for murder. In this version of events, Terry is ready to be seduced because his straight life is so depressing. Married to Wendy (Keeley Hawes) and father to a couple of adorable prop-kids, he’s also in debt to an organization that sends thugs named Pinky (Les Kenny-Green) and Perky (Jamie Kenna) to smash up a couple of cars on his sales lot (with an exasperated sigh. Terry points out the illogic of this gesture, as it makes it even harder for him to make the money he’s supposed to be paying back, but of course he misses the real point, that brutality is supposed to make him desperate and prone to bad judgment, which it does.
The occasion for such judgment, Martine, is also duped, as she believes her new secret beau concerning the need to steal a particular safety deposit box out of a Lloyds Bank in London. She doesn’t know that the box contains photos of a certain royal princess in a sexual threeway. But you do know (making Martine look foolish pretty much right away), as the film performs its own sensational sort of seduction: an opening sequence in which the blurry, through-a-window sex scenes are photographed by Michael X. He goes on to use them to blackmail his way out of a prison sentence, but Everett can’t let on about this mess, and so he only tells Martine that she’s facing her own legal trouble if she doesn’t find a way to get the bank job done. She finds Terry.
With a crew comprised of mates (including Dave [Daniel Mays] and Kevin [Stephen Campbell Moore]) as well as colorful specialists (an aging con-man, an Italian drill expert), Terry concocts a fabulous scheme. They purchase a shop two doors down from the bank, tunnel under a Chicken Inn, et voila, pop up inside the time-locked vault (let’s just say that in 1971, security systems were not impregnable). The thieves are so confident in their schedule that they even take time, after emerging into the bank, for a nap, a bit of downtime that mainly allows Terry and Martine to go through requisite trysting motions, not exactly surprising, but underlining Terry’s basic inability to hold true to his promises to Wendy. Statham is surely charismatic, even when called on to go through these and other generic motions (these include a fight scene, a chase scene, a couple of smarty-pants showdowns with smug opponents in expensive suits).
While Terry’s sexual activity is coded as undeniable “passion,” other sex in the film is patently pathological. The princess isn’t the only figure pushing the privilege envelope, as the box contains as well photos of variously smarmy lords in extremely compromising positions (unimaginatively, being whipped by women in boots and black vinyl corsets). Again, Terry and company are operating in the dark, but the film overexplains for you that the lords are protected by MI5, whose agents never seem as smart as they need to be. One particularly discomfiting situation has a white woman agent, Sonia (Sharon Maughan), “infiltrating” the black militants’ operation by sleeping with Hakim (Colin Salmon), essentially set up for dire punishment for her boundary-crossing.
Though Terry has no notion of what he’s walked into (late in the game, he’s advised, “You’ve opened Pandora’s box, you dumb prick”), he is of course up to the tasks once presented. This, the movie suggests, has to do with his essential criminality: he can’t help himself. Though he may believe himself when he tells Wendy, “All I want is to get out of the game,” he’s also plainly thrilled by challenge, the chance to beat the system one more time.
That said, Terry doesn’t anticipate the underhandedness of his adversaries, including not only the politicians caught with their pants down, but also the a pimp/gangster named Lew (David Suchet), who keeps cops on his payroll, and those cops, keen to keep Lew’s ledger (in another safety deposit box) out of sight. (Lew does occasion the film’s most entertaining line, when Michael X tells him, “I will not be lectured by the porn king of Soho”). As The Bank Job keeps track of these several strands at once, it becomes more procedural than compelling. The robbery itself is reduced to a series of repetitive scenes: digging, walkie-talkie exchanges, police monitoring of the walkie-talkie exchanges, and more digging. Unable to locate the source of the transmissions, the police fumble and grumble, hampered by the same low tech that allows the robbers to get away.
Per formula, Terry’s bad behavior is offset by the worse behavior of his assorted opponents. Theft, deception, and adultery don’t look so terrible compared to murder and torture. In their by-the-numbers plot, the villains are as stock as stock characters can be (the stereotypical militant, the hypocritical pols, the lone decent cop appalled to learn of the multi-layered corruption). In the movie business, this is more damning than any so-called scandalous actions.