Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
The Bank Job is set in London in 1971, and thus reminds us of the great director Sydney Lumet’s films of the 70s and 80s. It is directed by Roger Donaldson, who has shown himself capable of making great movies (No Way Out, Smash Palace, The Bounty, Thirteen Days) and stinkers (White Sands, Cadillac Man, Dante’s Peak, Cocktail) with equal aplomb. This film is most certainly in the first category, and in fact may be his best to date. The title may be a plain and simple one, but the story is anything but; London police, British royalty, a radical black activist, a porn king, and a bunch of non-professional bank robbers all play roles. We are told that the film is based on actual events, and if that’s true I am simply flabbergasted that their story hasn’t been told before. The screenwriters, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais must have salivated over their keyboards while they typed this one up.
Jason Statham is Terry Leather, a low-level thief who sells cars after their odometers have been altered. As often happens with crooks, he owes some tough guys a lot of money that he doesn’t have. Saffron Burrows is Martine Love, a not-so-old flame of Terry’s, who comes to him with a proposition: rob a bank in Central London, as she has inside information that the alarm system will be under repair for a week. It doesn’t take much thought from Terry and his cohorts, Dave (Daniel Mays) and Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore) before they accept her offer. What they don’t know is that Martine is working with Tim (Richard Lintern), a spy who wants her to recover some pictures that show a Royal Princess in compromising positions. The pictures were taken by a black activist named Michael X (Peter De Jersey) who fashions himself after Malcolm X and who has placed the pictures in a safety deposit box in the bank.
The revealing photos of British royalty aren’t the only precious items in those safety deposit boxes. There’s also a ledger that has been kept by a strip club owner and porn maker named Lew Vogel (David Suchet) which documents all of the payoffs that he’s made to corrupt cops. There are even lewd photographs of top government officials who have solicited sex from a local madam. (It seems the 4 million bucks that Terry and his buddies recover may very well be the least valuable items in the bank!) Of course all that Terry knows is that he will finally be able to leave London with his wife and kids, and retire from a life of crime.
Once the money and valuable items have been stolen, the rest of the story kicks in as the corrupt cops, officials, royals, and porn king realize what has been taken. With all of the various characters and complications in The Bank Job, it would have been easy for the film to lose us halfway through, but Donaldson and his writers keep everything together. I’m reminded of his No Way Out, another labyrinthine plot with multiple characters that was directed with such a sure and confident hand that it never got lost. This is not to say that it’s easy for the audience to follow along here, but my point is it shouldn’t be. For an audience that wants to pay attention and be involved, the chore will be well worth it. The complexity will cause some critics to call The Bank Job a “British” film, but that should be taken as a compliment; I have little doubt that an “American” version would be dumbed down and over-simplified.
The pacing is near perfect: the first half – leading up to and involving the actual robbery – is much more slowly paced than the second half, where all of the various characters react to the ramifications of what’s been stolen. The result is a building tension that finally uncoils and turns the more conventional bank robbery on its head. It helps that the performances are so spot on. The bad guys here are really bad and the stand out amongst all of them is David Suchet’s porn king Vogel. Suchet, who has made a career playing sleuth Hercule Poirot, is nearly unrecognizable here under big glasses and a sweaty brow that oozes sleaze. Making his turn all the more memorable is a kidney stone that doesn’t seem to want to pass and which turns his glassy stare into a pained scowl at a moment’s notice. Jason Statham is solid as the well intentioned crook who deftly adapts to the increasingly complicated situation he finds himself in.
A little investigation into the actual events that inspired The Bank Job reveals that the story has not been told to this point because of a government gagging order. In fact at the end of the film we are told that over a hundred people wouldn’t reveal what was in their safety deposit boxes and that some info surrounding the events won’t be released until the year 2054. The characters in the film certainly deserve each other, and there’s something to be said about a caper film in which the bank robber is most honest and likable person of the whole lot. The Bank Job takes corruption, dishonesty, and just some downright nastiness and turns it into taut, compelling cinema.