Friday, March 07, 2008

Nice Work in the Bank Job

One September weekend in 1971, a crew of thieves broke into the safety deposit boxes of the undistinguished London Bank. Relatively few box-holders were willing to report their losses to the police, and after an initial rash of sensational press coverage, the case precipitously disappeared from the papers. This much is true and it opens up enormous holes of plausibility for the screenwriters of The Bank Job to plug with some very clever historical speculation. Opening wide today, The Bank Job (trailer here) is a surprisingly entertaining caper film that shrewdly incorporates the political environment of post-Mod London.

The McGuffin of Bank Job involves compromising photos of a Royal (which the film actually names) held by Michael X, a murderous pimp and drug dealer, who reinvented himself as the self-appointed leader of the British Black Power movement. As long as Michael X holds those photos, he is effectively immune from prosecution, so British intelligence manipulates a group of small-timers living on the edge reputable society to hit the bank.

Jason Statham plays the leader of the rag-tag crew of appropriately colorful accomplices and Saffron Burrows plays their puppet master. Their heist scenes, though constrained by the actual historic circumstances, are reasonably entertaining on their own. However, the scenes of historical political speculation are very sharply written and seamlessly integrated into the story.

Michael X (Michael de Freitas), played by Peter de Jersey, is portrayed as a stone cold killer, who has conned London’s fashionable Left with his revolutionary posturing. The real life Freitas was indeed a thoroughly evil character (background here). Again, Bank deserves credit for depicting him in an accurate manner and not watering him down out of politically correct squeamishness. One of the fascinating elements of Bank are the criminal connections it postulates between Freitas’s network, the vice empire of Lew Vogel (played with relish by David Suchet), an exclusive Madam catering to government elites, and a large contingent of crooked cops.

Bank is being promoted as Statham’s breakout from formulaic actioners into legitimate leading man territory. Alas, he just does not quite pull it off, coming across slightly wooden in his dramatic scenes. Fortunately, he is at least good enough to keep everything charging forward and is surrounded by a top flight cast of British character actors. David Suchet’s Vogel is a riveting screen villain, simultaneously scary and oddly charming in a disconcerting, serpentine way. Gerard Horan also lends some unexpected depth to Roy Given, one of the few honest cops in London.

Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais deserve a good portion of the credit for the film’s success. While Bank is at heart an action picture, they wrote it smart, with “what if’s” that are completely convincing. Roger Donaldson directs in a splashy visual style appropriate to the swinging period and functions as a good traffic cop, moving events forward at a vigorous pace.

It might not replace your Kurosawa collection, but all the elements come together nicely for a good time at the movies. Ultimately, Bank just delivers as an action picture with ambition. It opens nationwide today.