The less you know about Roger Donaldson’s enormously entertaining heist flick The Bank Job the better off you will be when you see it. This is a total crowd-pleaser from start to finish, a smart, adult-oriented thriller that really thrills, and it’s a shame that it slipped in and out of theaters back in 2008. Donaldson, who has had a solid directorial career filled with some great popcorn flicks and more personal underrated efforts, crafted a very polished piece of genre filmmaking with The Bank Job; it may be his best overall effort. The caper movie can be a tricky beast at times as the audience expects surprises from stories such as this, and in that respect, The Bank Job doesn’t disappoint. The smart yet complicated script courtesy of veteran screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais (The Commitments) is sassy, tough, and fast paced. It’s also very funny, and when necessary, down and dirty and mean. Anchored by a sturdy, Steve McQueen-esque performance from big-screen tough-guy Jason Statham (his best work to date as an actor) The Bank Job breezes along, never slowing down for a moment during the extremely tight two hour run time.
One of the reasons why I had such a blast with this flick was that I didn’t know all of the particulars. The film starts off in sexy, 70’s fashion, with a couple of topless women frolicking in crystal clear ocean water, at some unnamed resort area. The ladies, and their male friend, move to a nearby bungalow, for a more private encounter. What the three of them don’t realize is that there is someone snapping some incriminating photographs from outside their window. What the audience doesn’t initially realize is that one of the women enjoying the tryst happens to be British royalty. And it doesn’t help matters that the individual taking those photographs happens to be connected to the ruthless gangster Michael X (a sneering and vicious Peter De Jersey). The photos will serve as leverage if he ever gets into trouble with the British government. Right off the bat, some excellent pieces are set into motion.
Cut to London. Terry Leather (Statham) runs an auto-body shop with a couple of ex-goons. Leather is no stranger to trouble and local harassment from an assortment of petty gangsters and crooked cops. It’s clear that he might have had some run-ins with the law earlier in life, but that he’s at least attempting to go straight. But before long, in classic tradition, his stunningly gorgeous old-flame Martine (Saffron Burrows, exuding sexiness), a part-time model, shows up at his shop with a potentially dangerous but extremely lucrative proposition. She’s met some people who want to rob a bank in downtown London. There are some specifics to the case that I will allow you to discover on your own, but I will concede that Martine may or may not be 100% truthful with all of the facts. And the way a porn kingpin, the British secret intelligence, local cops, a high-class brothel, dirty politicians, and a variety of naked women figure into the plot are also developments that should be left for your discovery. Normally a heist film doesn’t juggle this many plot lines, but credit the writers with doing so coherently and excitingly, while never losing sight of the tight story at its core. Also, in reference to the on-screen nudity, I must say how refreshing it was to actually see an adult-minded picture that wasn’t shy about sexuality and had some fun in this realm. It was also rather nice to see a heist film where I actually believed the heist that was going on! How many times have we seen over-the-top scenarios with an impossible heist in the middle of a ridiculous plot? The fact that The Bank Job is based on real events makes it even juicier.
Statham got a chance to actually prove that he could act in The Bank Job, grounding the movie at all times with his inherent gravitas, while also allowing for more nuance than one probably expects from him as a performer. While I have loved seeing him kick continuous bad-guy ass in movies like Crank and Crank 2 and The Transporter/Expendables series, it was great to see him play a real character for once, one with a credible backstory, honest vulnerabilities, and some level of genuine stress. But never fear – Statham gets to flex his muscles at the end of The Bank Job, and because the ass-whooping that he throws is completely warranted by the plot, it felt all the more cathartic and exciting. The deep ensemble cast, made up of lots of British character actors, seals the deal as there isn’t one wasted performance or actor in the entire bunch. Burrows, who has more to do in the film than you might think considering her “hot-chick” character archetype, is mysterious, gorgeous, and dangerous, exactly what a femme fatale should be.
But to be honest, I can’t help but feel that the real star of The Bank Job is its director. Donaldson, an Australian journeyman/gun-for-hire, had a couple of big hits in the 80’s with the excellent No Way Out and the slick ‘n shitty Cocktail. And then came the 90’s, which weren’t as kind: Cadillac Man, White Sands, and the wholly unnecessary yet still entertaining remake of Sam Peckinpah’s masterwork The Getaway, all of which were critical and commercial disappointments. Then there was the schlocky and totally awesome sci-fi hit Species, which while derivative beyond belief, was a fun, effective B-movie that did solid business, spawned a franchise, and introduced the world to Natasha Henstridge. Next came Dante’s Peak, the first (and better) of the two big-budget volcano movies of the late 90’s. Then, in 2000, Donaldson busted out with the excellent Cuban missile crisis political thriller 13 Days, which did piss-poor business, and probably competes with The Bank Job for “best film of career” honors. Needing a hit, he followed that up with the more conventional spy film The Recruit, which was solid if uninspired entertainment, and then in 2005, he made the delightful Anthony Hopkins starrer The World’s Fastest Indian, clearly a more personal project.
Donaldson, always a solid technician who brings an unfussy sense of style to all of his films, seemed to have been reinvigorated by the material in The Bank Job. He directed with an icy firm grip, never letting the busy plot spin out of control, shooting the action in a crisp and clean fashion, and allowing for moments of character based humor. And in tandem with his talented cinematographer Michael Coulter, he brought a gritty, desaturated color palette to match the 70’s-style realism with the on location London surroundings. But while critics heaped praise on The Bank Job, it died a quick death with theatrical audiences, and after the unfair box office failure, Donaldson has gone back to more routine offerings, like 2011’s clichéd lawyer thriller Seeking Justice (which barely got a release) and the vanilla-looking The November Man (haven’t seen that one yet). If you’re looking for smart entertainment, a film that is sexy, unpredictable, humorous, and satisfying, you could do a lot worse than check out The Bank Job. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but for what it is, it’s just about damn near perfect. And sometimes, all we need is a classy, unpretentious piece of entertainment like The Bank Job to remind us that there is life left in one of our more well-stocked genres.