THE BANK JOB
directed by Roger Donaldson
area theaters, starts Friday
"Based on a true story," brags The Bank Job before diving into the clear blue water of the Caribbean, where, in 1970, a topless woman frolics with two swimming mates—just another day in paradise. The trio retires to a hotel room for a sweaty, breathless afternoon quickie, which is photographed by a Peeping Tom who will later turn out to be the militant British Black Power figure Michael X, who stores the pictures in a London safe-deposit box for safekeeping. Because, you see, one of the women peeped at through the window is royalty: Princess Margaret, who often retreated to the island with her gardener boyfriend, according to the English press. Not so many photographers around—except this one man, on this one lucky day.
But there's a problem: The British spy service MI5 would like those photos back, if you please. So it corrals some amateur villains into doing its dirty work—which is to say, breaking into a Lloyds bank vault—lest MI5 sully its own manicured hands. Among those recruited for the robbery is a small-time used-car salesman, who, to this point, has been involved only in "the odd bit of skullduggery." He's also the unwitting pawn of a former model (and his former girlfriend) doing penance for a heroin bust at the airport. In short order, the two put together a gang of characters, rent a purse-shop storefront, tunnel under a fried-chicken eatery, and drill their way through sewers and burial crypts containing corpses left over from the Great Plague of 1665 till they reach the X marking the spot.
Not only do the pics get looted and scooted out of the vault, so do a few million pounds and other goodies belonging to the Black Power baddies. It all gets pretty damned blinkered 'round the time a ham radio operator catches the robbers' walkie-talkie chitchat, and soon enough a secret op becomes a media sensation—till, in a matter of days, the whole thing disappears from the papers as if it never happened.
Because maybe it did go down like this and maybe it didn't—the English media has spent the better part of a year back-and-forthing over the true-or-false plot points of The Bank Job. Among the details left out in media accounts: the porn king who's paying off dirty coppers, the murder of a female MI5 agent sent to spy on Michael X in his Trinidad hideout, and the various British politicians photographed having their naughty bits whipped about by prostitutes hanging around S&M dungeons. Based on a true story? Sure, whatever you say.
More important, and about bloody time, The Bank Job is also the first proper Jason Statham movie since his days banging about in Guy Ritchie's early heists. Statham plays the used-car salesman running an odometer-tinkering scam; the model ex-girlfriend is Saffron Burrows, a good six inches taller than Statham; Michael X is Peter De Jersey, looking like a beefier version of Jeffrey Wright's Jean Michel Basquiat. The rest of the cast consists of vaguely familiar British actors having a laugh—a good thing, too, since the whole film is such a giddy, good-time mess that one could happily spend a year surveying the plot for gaping holes, never mind fact-checking its historical accuracy.
Real or not, though, it's a real gas: Statham at last proves himself a leading man who does more than lead with his head. It isn't till the film's end that he has to throw a few punches and land a few head-butts—contractually obligated, no doubt. But by then he's managed to negotiate a screenplay in which there are complete sentences—whole paragraphs, even—that he gives his all without breaking a sweat. Even when he has to convince his missus he's a stand-up shit-heel, Statham's totally believable. He might yet become Bruce Willis.
There's nothing earth-shattering otherwise: Imagine, if you can, Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks filtered through Ritchie's Snatch, as directed by a real filmmaker—or close enough, in Roger Donaldson's case. (Donaldson, after all, is capable of the very decent, like The World's Fastest Indian and No Way Out, and the very awful, as in Cocktail and The Recruit; this falls closer to the former category than the latter.) Still, Donaldson has to try awfully hard to keep this merry mess together. But eventually he cuts loose and lets go, resulting in a Bank Job worth the loot—10 bucks, give or take.