A new British film has arrived on the shores of America, one that I give you “leave” to like. It is good, but not great. The Bank Job, set in the 1970s with its funky garb and anti-everything music, is the perfect backdrop. The villains dig and tunnel beneath the streets of London just as the “free” message of the 1970s tunneled through the clothes, minds, and hearts of young people the world over.
This film sports a fine cast, but someone on the team, however, could have been a little more inventive with the title — perhaps something like “Tunnel Vision.” But there won’t be a “do over” for this title. It runs one hour 55 minutes and is rated a strong R for sex, violence, and language.
The subject of the film is a based on the true story of a well-known 1971 London heist. It is therefore an expected thriller in every sense of the word about a heist gone right. A charming spy, Tim Everett, played by Richard Lintern, orchestrates the way. Martine Love, played by Saffron Burrows, gets caught in airport customs carrying cocaine. Everett approaches her with a deal. Her drug charges will go away if she helps to get some photos from a safe deposit box before they are leaked to the public. The only catch is that it will take a bank robbery to accomplish the deed.
Enter the great British heist. The Brits pull out all the stops. They must retrieve the photos and keep the connection between espionage and the heist completely separate. No one must know the two are tied. They use female spies and counter-spies to get the job done — this is somewhat fleshed out in the film but confusing at the same time. Martine chooses to team up with old flame, Terry Leather, delivered with aplomb by Jason Statham. Terry runs a wannabe upscale auto repair shop that is in hock up to its rear view mirror, and gets constant visits from window- and leg-breakers because he owes his backers money.
Terry involves his family and closest friends in his bank robbery scheme even though he has no knowledge of what is coming his way through Martine and British spies. Only the prospect of jewels and countless cash looms large. He does not know he is really being tapped to secure the contents of box 118. She knows but keeps it from him. And when he puts the two together, sparks fly. Director Roger Donaldson articulates the minutiae involved in planning, preparation, and execution of the heist. This is the meat of the film and also the choicest cut.
The person behind the photos is one Michael X. The person in the photos is one Princess Margaret. The audience does not learn much about the real Michael X, except that he lives in London part-time and is a biracial black activist from Trinidad who allegedly takes nude photos of Princess Margaret while she is on holiday.
The good news is that The Bank Job has only a few flaws that could be overcome easily: It resorts at times to low-wattage thrills based on torture, threats, and violence. Since it is a high-stakes story about saving face for the royal family that means that it is really all about the photos. And I think more time and explanation should have been available about the man who took them in the first place. This is the weakest link in the film — the lesser characters are nearly left out or left on the film editor’s desk.
For example, I wanted to understand the motivation of Michael X and his black activist circle of friends. It begs the question: How did he arrive on British radar as a national threat before he took the photos? Instead, the director focuses on sidelines about infidelity and past grudges. So when we learn everyone’s (true) fate at the end we are not really moved. That is the barometer which is the rubric of any great film — did it transport and move me on an emotional level?
Here the movie reminded me a lot of American Gangster. In fact, I found the two “true” tales a weird mélange, with the same critique I had for American Gangster — not enough about main threads and too much about the distractions of third parties. The Bank Job is a shorter film, which could have benefitted with another ten minutes filling in some blanks. It does not quite rise to the cinematic level of Michael Clayton and does not have the big budget of American Gangster. It could be overlooked at Oscar time, but I think it is worth a look.