How many heist movies have been made in the past 100 years? Probably not as many as hit man movies or serial killer movies, but nevertheless quite a few. Happily, there's always room for one more, if it's a good one, and Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job is indeed a good one. Moreover, I'd venture to say that it deserves to be called a crackerjack heist movie. Donaldson is about as far from a cinematic auteur as a director can get -- his disparate credits include The Bounty (1984), Cocktail (1988), Species (1995), Thirteen Days (2000), The Recruit (2003) and The World's Fastest Indian (2005) -- but that's where thirty years of experience and skill come in. The Bank Job takes a fairly complex story with multiple players on multiple sides, and presents it cleanly, briskly and excitingly.
Jason Statham leads the huge cast as Terry, a small time London hustler deep in debt, married with kids, and running a crooked auto shop -- just till he gets back on his feet. It's 1971 and an old friend, Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), who has been working as a model, shows up with a proposition. She is dating a secret agent who told her about a bank; the nearby tube trains have been setting off the alarms, so they're being replaced, and the bank will be without alarms for a time. Plus, if they hit the safe deposit boxes, there will be no way to trace the crime, based on the theory that most people won't want to disclose what it was they wanted to keep safe. Terry rounds up a couple of his mates and launches his scheme. They rent a storefront a couple of doors down from the bank, tunnel underground and re-surface inside the vault.
What Terry doesn't know is that a black revolutionary called Michael X (Peter de Jersey) has been avoiding arrest thanks to his collection of dirty pictures of Princess Margaret enjoying a threesome. The secret agent has enlisted Martine to get the pictures so that they can avoid blackmail and finally nail the rabble-rouser. Unbeknownst to anyone, Terry's haul also includes a ledger with a list of dirty cops, and a whole pile of other blackmail photos featuring British officials in compromising positions. After the heist, Terry and his crew find themselves in hot water, six ways from Sunday. The good news is that The Bank Job doesn't follow a carefully constructed course, where every move goes exactly according to Terry's plan; this bank job flies mainly by the seat of its pants. There's more bluffing, guessing and hoping than there is any actual planning.
Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, The Bank Job is based on a true story, though the facts have been carefully concealed. London newspapers carried the story for about three days, and then suddenly stopped (a D-Notice was apparently issued). Some robbers apparently got away and others were apparently killed. Some characters are based on real people and others are based on guesswork. The real-life Michael X, who died in 1975, has a detailed file that will apparently remain sealed for another fifty years. If anything the movie takes a few short cuts due to its lack of facts. In one sequence, while digging under the bank, Terry's crew stumbles upon an old crypt, thereby saving time. But they still wind up in the bank on Sunday, when the bank is closed, and they have all day to pillage the boxes. How much longer would it have taken if they had continued digging, and would they still have made it on Sunday? It's a good thing Donaldson decided to make a fiction movie rather than a documentary, and he does not attempt any kind of ultimate authoritative tone. The main point is that this single act by this small band of outsiders shook the entire London underworld to its foundations. And, how cool is that?
I can't emphasize enough how smoothly The Bank Job moves. We've got a few guys from MI5 or MI6 (the movie isn't even clear which), who are looking for the blackmail photos of the princess. We've got a sleazy strip club owner (David Suchet) who is forced to pay off dirty cops and keeps a ledger on just who is accepting the money and how much. We've got the dirty cops who want the ledger back too. We've got clean cops who want the dirty cops taken down. We've got Michael X and his people hiding out in Trinidad. We've got a British spy who has infiltrated her way into Michael X's company in the hopes that she can find the photos laying on a desk somewhere. We've got the local politicos who enjoy indulging in whips and chains. We've got Terry's team members, each with a different job and background (the lookout, the "poncy" front man, etc.) We've got gangsters who are after Terry because of his debts before the job, etc.Whew. But Donaldson has made every effort to distinguish each of these characters from one another. Even if we haven't seen some of them for fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch, their unique looks and voices immediately distinguish them. (I was never lost, not even for a second.) The ever-appealing Statham gets a chance at a slightly lower-key performance than usual and Suchet manages to stand out with his slick, sinister gangster character (played with a murmur rather than a shriek), wearing thick glasses. Likewise, Donaldson effortlessly builds suspense and action through clear camera setups and sharp editing; no hand-held jumbles here. This classic technique also emphasizes the feel of the era; this could have been a 1971 drive-in movie dug up intact from a time capsule. The Bank Job doesn't add anything new to the genre, but it delivers everything we loved about it in the first place.