I never really thought about it before, but I think I've determined I'm a fan of the caper movie. Looking back, I really like things like The Great Escape, The Italian Job, and The Ladykillers. And don't forget The Sting, one of my favorite movies of all time. I don't think it's a stretch to throw the TV series Hogan's Heroes in there also; while it is more about comedy than capering, it was the perfect entry point into the whole idea of convoluted plots to achieve a beneficial effect (I really really wanted a rotted out tree trunk that would lead into my secret cavern of goodness when I was a child). And so it was that Mrs. Speculator and I went to see The Bank Job. I admit, I had no huge expectations for the movie; frankly the Mrs. loves Jason Statham, and I enjoy pretty much everything he does. But the movie exceeded my low expectations into quite a nice thriller period piece, and Statham turns in a strong role in a minor film that hopefully promises something more from him down the road.
One of the treats of this film is that it is a period piece, set in the late 60s. The film doesn't go out of its way to make references to the 60s; instead it is very realistically done. Cars, music, language, and even lifestyle reflect the time period without calling attention to themselves beyond setting the timeframe. In less able hands than director Roger Donaldson's, you would probably see gags about the 60s and implicit references to the difference in the times. In that regard, the only thing I found to be truly distracting were the pastel patterns that one of the female characters kept showing up in. The result is that the film is centered and confident, not relying on other issues to sell the movie.
The story centers on a "villain," which I gather was a 60s British slang term for low-level crook, named Terry Leather and played by Statham. Leather is approached by an old neighborhood friend, Martine Love (played by Saffron Burrows) with a proposition for robbing a bank that has been left curiously unguarded over the course of a weekend. Of course, Leather doesn't know that Love has been blackmailed by an unnamed intelligence group into setting up the bank robbery. The goal of the intelligence group is to get incriminating pictures of Princess Margaret out of safe deposit box of a radical black leader who is using those pictures to keep from being tried for various crimes he has committed. As all of this is being set up, we also get some apparently tangential threads involving a pornography ring and a brothel. All of it makes a fascinating study of the period underground, and slowly those tangential pieces get pulled into the main story.
The movie really can be neatly divided into two halves. The first involves pulling the caper itself off, as we watch Leather pull together his band of irregulars and very low-level crooks into a job that would normally be over their heads. This first half has some amusing moments, including the members of the intelligence group actively pulling for Leather and his gang to succeed in their mission and the dumbest of the gang members, David Schilling (played by Daniel Mays) having take-out chicken delivered to the storefront the gang is working from. Even more ridiculous is the gang's use of walkie-talkies that are picked up by a local ham radio operator, who then calls in the police. Our view of the robbery then splits into external and internal views while the police try to figure out which bank is being robbed as the idiot robbers tell their listeners everything about what they are doing except their location. Just as funny and suspenseful is the robbers neatly stepping through a trap laid for them by the police when they accidentally destroy one of their walkie-talkies. This first half of the movie is cute and suspenseful, and our accidental heroes succeed beyond their wildest imaginings, except that Leather watches Love go directly to the pictures she is looking for and puts together that something about the whole deal is very very wrong.
Actually many things go wrong. There are more things in the vault than the robbers realize, and none of their owners, including the violent radical leader and the pornographer, like having their valuables looted. And suddenly the gang finds themselves on the run from very bad people who want their property back and want the gang dead for their temerity to rob the vault. And it falls upon Leather's shoulders to save not only as many of his gang members as he can, but also his own family members. Suddenly things are not quite so funny as gang members we've grown to like are disappearing from the street. There are a couple of scenes of torture that are disturbing, and we find that while Leather is a lovable loser, he's also a leader who will do everything he can for those who work for him. And there are heart-wrenching scenes when Leather's wife (played by Keeley Hawes) finds out what he has done, and Leather explains why. Usually the excuse that a crook is thinking of other people when he performs his crime is trite and generally untrue, but Leather means it and Statham sells it—he may be a low-life but he really cares about his family and friends. And so it falls to him to slice the Gordian knot he finds himself in, using a set-up straight from the best caper movies.
The movie is tightly scripted and shot—barely anything is wasted. And it is a tense story, though the kind of tension changes after the halfway point. Best of all, all of the actors put in a good job, Statham especially. These are believable characters and the viewer gets to see the rounded nature of Terry Leather. At the same time, the movie does not shirk from showing the truly evil nature of some its characters either, which in turn makes the depiction that much stronger.
As we walked out of the theater, I told Mrs. Speculator that The Bank Job is a tight little movie. That remains my opinion, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. It's no The Sting but it's a good two hours of entertainment. And best of all, it's all based on true events, which just adds another frisson of tension to the goings-on.