In this serviceable but not extraordinary film based on real events and set in 1971 London, a group of amateurs pull off a bank robbery that goes wrong in a lot of interesting ways. Prompted by an ex-model former girlfriend named Martine (Saffron Burrows), Terry (Jason Statham) recruits a group of friends to tunnel into the safety deposit vault of a Lloyd's Bank on Baker Street. The alarms at this particular branch are temporarily off for adjustment of a new system, just as Martine told Terry they would be. The metal drawers hold millions in jewelry and cash. Things seem pretty dicey more than once during the ambitious robbery, but the crew does succeed in taking away the loot.
It's not the robbery that matters, though, but the complications arising from the fact that in the drawers besides money and diamonds there are a lot of dirty secrets (the phrase "Pandora's box" is even used). The madam of a fancy brothel has stashed photos of high level gents and ladies doing all sorts of naughty things at her establishment. Another box contains records of a Soho porn czar's payoffs to a corrupt police officer. And still another has scandalous snapshots belonging to the sleazy slumlord and fake black radical, Michael X (Peter De Jersey), kept to blackmail the government. These include photos of an adulterous royal, Princess Margaret, and it's the need to conceal her scallywaggery that's prompted a boss at MI5 named Everett (Richard Lintern), who's been dating Martine, to set off the whole caper, calling on her because she's said she knows some "villains." She must comply, because he's gotten her off a drug-running charge.
The Bank Job has a retro feel; unfortunately a mid-level director like Donaldson can't really compete with the best of the old heist flicks this one resembles in its more mechanical aspects. For instance, a foreign expert is brought in, and he gives a demonstration in a basement, much like Cesar le Milanais in Jules Dassin's Rififi--but the memory is devastating, because this movie is nowhere near as fresh and suspenseful and atmospheric as that Fifties gem. Of course this isn't meant to be taken quite that seriously--though it isn't meant to be farce either; it's too involved in its reinvention of real events for that. There's a successful effort to make the accents and lingo authentic, and the grungy images achieved by cinematographer Michael Coulter and intrusive music (by various hands) sort of evoke the Seventies. Unfortunately in all the complicated stuff that happens, this movie forgets what it wants its tone to be. Sometimes it's light and funny, sometimes it's just factual and hurried, and when the cohorts get tortured by the nasties, it's pretty grim.
The subplots of the parliamentarians and the MI5, crooked cops and porn dealer Vogel (David Suchet), Terry's straight family life with two girls and wife Wendy (Keeley Hawes), at times seem overly complicated, but the movie would collapse without them, and film editor John Gilbert deserves credit for keeping things energetic and flowing by shifting scenes in ways that make this machine seem to be running on all four cylinders. The writing of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, an experienced pair with some admirable credits, can't be faulted from page to page; but they're trying to weave in too much material. There's another subplot of a ham radio operator who by chance intercepts the robbers' walkie-talkie communications between Terry and his rooftop lookout Eddie (Michael Jibson). All things considered it's surprising all this stuff flows as well as it does. Lively English acting helps here to make the various groups of characters, especially Terry's team, not hard to keep track of. Jason Statham stands out, with his big face, short hair, and perpetual three-day's growth of beard. That may not be a very Seventies look (and indeed the Seventies are sometimes forgotten in the film), but he has an intensity that makes his character feel stronger and more authentic than even the most able of the other cast members; it's his film, and that's another thing that helps save The Bank Job from becoming totally mediocre. It has a strong center.
The ham radio interception gave the robbery its press name, "the walkie-talkie bank job." The police still couldn't pinpoint which bank the voices were coming from, but they broadcast tapes of them on commercial radio the next day seeking identifications. The job was done on Sunday, and Monday morning of course Lloyd's employees find out which bank was robbed soon enough. Several of the robbers come to grief when captured by the crooked cop and his porn associate, but four days after the robbery the government issues a a D notice, forbidding any further press coverage in the interests of national security, and the other fledgling thieves slip away, with mutual wink-winks and a turnover of all the incriminating materials to authorities. A majority of the box holders did not report their losses, end titles say, so by implication they were all up to skulduggery; even the money was largely dirty. Oh, those naughty Seventies.
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