March 6, 2008

Brits can’t keep Bank Job under wraps

[img id="80416" align="alignleft"] In September of 1971, a team of thieves broke into the vault of Lloyds Bank on London’s Baker Street, making off with over four million pounds in discreetly held valuables of some of the most highly placed members of British society. No one was ever charged in connection with the crime, and none of the money was ever recovered. Though news of the robbery caused an immediate wave of outrage and speculation, the British government swiftly issued a D-notice—usually reserved for matters of national security—on the whole affair, gagging further press coverage.

Three decades later, screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais decided to try to bring the truth of the Baker Street bank robbery to light on the big screen.

For a film billed as part action movie, part exposé, The Bank Job is fairly unassuming. As you watch a team of part-time crooks attempt to steer what appears to be a laser beam a few layers of earth beneath a small Indian restaurant, you might think that the only thing distinguishing it from any other action flick is that the tricks and twists are a bit more unbelievable than usual. The biggest twist, of course, is that everything in this movie is based on something that actually happened.

The movie provides a look into organized crime, police corruption, and the power politics of the upper echelons of the British government of the ’70s and makes some accusations that would be pretty embarrassing to the British Royal Family. However, while it should rightly make people question whether that government could have been at all justified in going so far as to orchestrate a bank robbery basically over publicity control, the fact that the major revelations promised by The Bank Job are frontloaded into the opening scenes undermines the movie’s chance at holding the audience’s attention through suspense alone. Add to this the fact that the storyline is at least partly based on conjecture by the writers, and it’s clear that mere authenticity, while an effective promotional blurb, isn’t enough to carry this film.

The last half hour of the movie, after the actual heist has taken place, is the most solid part. The small-time crooks do the government’s dirty work, eliminating the evidence in the bank vault and eluding everyone from honest cops to dirty nightclub owners to keep their lives, let alone their loot. The problem is that the eventual outcome is an absolute given. So while The Bank Job is a decent example of a heist movie in the style of Ocean’s 11, its inherent premise means that it can really succeed only as personal drama and social commentary.

The only remotely likable characters in this movie are the bank robbers themselves. The film doesn’t bother to characterize the MI5 spooks, the policemen, or the crimelords and other undesirables that figure into the convoluted plot on more than a superficial level. But the sometimes reluctant ringleader Terry, played by Jason Statham, is the most sympathetic character in the film, probably because it’s obvious that he knows his place in British society as a working-class man and his place in criminal society as a small-time crook. He agrees to take on the heist of a lifetime not out of ambition, but because he sees it as a chance to get himself and his family out of their precarious existence. It’s almost painful to see how little the robbers know about the extent to which they’re manipulated by their social higher-ups, and it’s startling but entirely believable to hear them acknowledge their own expendability. The film is pretty clear in its opinion of the clean-suited spooks and parliamentarians running the show. Its suspense comes not from the question of whether the team can pull off the bank job, but whether they can pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and get away with more than the modicum of reward promised them.

For those fascinated by the real-life premise of The Bank Job, the most enlightening part of the film will probably be the last few minutes, when the filmmakers list as much information about the real bank job as is declassified at this time. But debating the place that film and other entertainment media have in exposing “the real story” behind government cover-ups is missing the point. Yes, The Bank Job is ostensibly about the most successful heist in the past century, but it’s better when approached as a movie about a group of workday people, no better or worse than their social superiors, who have to try to keep their heads after unwittingly taking on an extraordinary job.