[6 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find.
Terry Leather is a scrappy London car dealer, his gambling problems placing both his business and his marriage in deep, deep trouble. When an old flame named Martine Love turns up on his stoop, he’s open to her somewhat surreal suggestion. She wants Terry to put together a crew and rob a bank. She will handle all the details. He just needs to find the manpower. Set up in an adjoining shop, the plan is to tunnel into the vault and rob it. Whatever Terry and the boys get, they can keep. Martine is after a specific safety deposit box. Turns out, a Black Militant group with ties to London’s underground pornography trade has compromising pictures of one of the British royals. Their leader is using the snaps to keep out of jail. But the heist uncovers more than Terry, Martine, and government intelligence want to know. As the main instigator of the crime, even the Crown could be compromised.
As with all ‘based on a true story’ narratives, the events in The Bank Job have to be taken with a small grain of cinematic salt. In essence, what we are getting is a thirty year old account from a supposed participant in this crime, claiming that the highest levels of UK intelligence staged a robbery to protect the image of Princess Margaret. If we are to believe the facts presented, the compromising images of the noblewoman in steamy sexual congress would destroy the Monarchy (proving, once again, that this really is the early ‘70s). Equally suspect is the notion that a street hood like Terry Leather - name changed to protect the ‘guilty’, or so the pre-credits screen card reads - could literally outsmart MI5, powerful mobsters, shady radicals, and his own character issues to make this all work.
Oddly enough, the heist is not the most compelling part of this film. The set up takes a bit to build, since Donaldson clearly wants to establish character and tone here. There is a nice squalid London vibe, a real sense of time and place. And the actors make good with the limited material they are given. Jason Statham is once again the balding British bulldog with an ever present muzzle and a head butting approach to problem solving. Saffron Burroughs is very believable as the aging model turned drug mule, forced into the service of the government thanks to a boyfriend in the Agency and a taste for cocaine. As suave flesh peddler Lew Vogel, David Suchet provides the perfect combination of sleaze and sensibility. And Daniel Mays leaves a large impression as Dave, one of Terry’s accomplices.
But weak links also abound - and not just in the performance pool. Peter De Jersey’s black radical Michael X is nearly comic in his chest-puffing arrogance. The entire subplot involving another secret agent (a hippy-dippy white girl) working within his group seems senseless in both its support of the story and its finale’s brutality. Also odd is the other main narrative - the potential impact of some additional scandalous photos on high placed British officials. It makes sense in the long run, especially when you consider the criminal element the movie is dealing in, but it frequently comes across like a bad joke. It’s like a punchline without a point. Of course, the era defines such reactions. We are so much savvier in our post-modern cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it helps the movie.
Still, Donaldson’s direction guides us through the rough spots. He’s efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements. The screenplay also strikes an interesting balance between crime and punishment. We want to see Terry and his blokes succeed, if only because these thieves are the most jovial lot on the screen. But we are constantly reminded that their felonious acts don’t often pay, and on a couple of occasions, a character’s fate seems unduly harsh. Donaldson does tie it all up in the end, and we feel a sense of satisfaction with the way things play out. But The Bank Job tends to remain an epic shorn of its scope. If Martin Scorsese were behind the lens, he’d have us at “allo”. Instead, everything stays a small little bit of relatively unknown British history.
Indeed, before the gag order turned the media labeled “Walkie Talkie Robbery” (a ham radio operator overheard signals being sent between Terry and his outside lookout) into a myth, there was substantial buzz about this incident. Why no one ever attempted a fully fictional adaptation of the facts seems strange - as does the arrival of this so-called ‘insider’ version. In part, the movie works because it’s offering us a previously squelched story dealing with inherently engaging material. But The Bank Job could be so much more. Sadly, Donaldson doesn’t strive for same.