Bank Job, The (2008): Donaldson’s Heist Movie

After several disappointing films, the gifted director Roger Donaldson is back in good form with the nicely made if old-fashioned “The Bank Job,” a heist movie inspired by the famous (and infamous) 1971 robbery of the Lloyds Bank in Marylebone London.

As helmed by Donaldson and written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, “The Bank Job” is more ambitious than just a suspenseful heist adventure film, aiming to comment on the social mores and political context in which the event took place, dealing with corruption, murder, and sexual scandal in early 1970s England, right after the swinging London era.

That said, as grounded and as accurate the film is in British culture, it may not transfer well across the pond with American audiences because of those factors. Moreover, though highly-charged, tautly structured, and sporadically entertaining, “The Bank Job” is not a picture without problems, but more about it later.

It’s nice to report that star Jason Statham (better known for actioners such as “Transporter,” “Snatch,” “Crank”, and “The Italian Job”) continues to improve as a lead man. In this picture, he enjoys good rapport with the beautiful Saffron Burrows, and benefits from the support of a large ensemble of accomplished (but unknown here) British actors, such as Richard Lintern, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, Peter Bowles, Keeley Hawes, David Suchet, Alki David, Michael Jibson, and Georgia Taylor.

Statham plays Terry, a car dealer with a dodgy past and new family, a man who up until now has managed to avoid major scams. However, when the beautiful Martine (Burrows), a model and old flame from his past neighborhood, offers him a lead on what seems like a “foolproof” bank hit on London’s Baker Street, Terry can’t resist, recognizing a unique opportunity to improve his lot.

In the first reel, we get a very detailed depiction of the plan. Martine targets a room of safe deposit boxes that are worth millions in cash and jewelry. What Terry and his crew don’t realize is that the boxes are invaluable for another reason: They contain many dirty secrets.

The team doesn’t, but we viewers immediately recognize the risk and danger they face, that stumbling upon these secrets will thrust them into a web of corruption and illicit scandal that prevail in London’s criminal underworld. That the above concern the upper class and highest echelons of the British government–and also the Royal Family itself-makes the movie at once richer, more suspenseful and more poignant.

As noted, the socio-political context is crucial: The saga is set in a fascinating era, right after the period of Swinging London and the decline of Flower Power, when the country faced a series of labor conflicts under Edward Heaths Conservative Government and escalating violence and bloodshed due to the lengthy conflict with Northern Ireland.

Dubbed the Walkie-Talkie Robbery by newspapers and tabloids, the crime was reportedly discovered by an amateur, Robert Rowlands, who alerted the Scotland Yard after overhearing a robbery in progress somewhere within a 10-mile radius of Central London. As a result, 750 banks in the inner London area were checked that weekend, but there were no signs of forced entry anywhere. It was only when Lloyds Bank, situated on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, opened for business on Monday morning that the looting of hundreds of safety deposit boxes in the main vault was discovered.

The robbery has left countless questions unanswered. After only four days of reportage by newspapers, the story disappeared entirely, the result of an alleged D Notice issued by the government. In the end, only four men were convicted in connection with the crime, and much of the loot was never recovered. Of the stolen property that the police did retrieve, most was never reclaimed, which served as a testament to just how many incriminating secrets were buried in the vaults of banks. Over the years, the Walkie-Talkie Robbery became an urban legend, one that people still talk about.

An unpredictable director, Roger Donaldson has had a checkered, up-and-down-and-up career, marked by great commercial films, such as “No Way Out” and political thrillers like “Thirteen Days,” but also lukewarm and disappointing works like the formulaic “Dante’s Peak,” the mildly enjoyable but routine, “The Recruit,” and the eccentric “The World’s Fastest Indian,” with Anthony Hopkins all over the place.

What’s more surprising is the script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who have recently penned two mediocre, vastly different films: Julie Taymor’s musical montage “Across the Universe” and the animated feature “Flushed Away.” Rising to the occasion, here, they have succeeded in interweaving a largely involving tale that integrates the particular bank scandals with the broader political milieu, while not neglecting the personal stories of the large cohort of criminals involved.

In its good moments, which are plentiful, “The Bank Job” assumes the shape of a diverting old-fashioned heist and a more relevant conspiracy saga, the kinds of which Hollywood made in the 1970s, movies like “The French Connection,” “The conversation,” “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men,” and so on.

According to the narrative, the story went off the front pages quickly due to all kinds of hidden agendas. Indeed, watching the movie suggests that there are still stories and subplots that have not been made public yet.

Older viewers will get a kick out of the primitive technology used in the movie, a reflection of the times. Predating the computer and internet age, which made robberies and heists more sophisticated and calls for more specialized skills, in “Bank Job” the robbers use picks and shovels, digging under the ground, blasting through the bank, tearing the safety boxes apart with crowbars!

Though technically accomplished, with an admirable recreation of period detail, “Bank Job” suffers from both textual and tonal problems. In an era of movies that have slender plots and shallow characters, it may be strange to complain about a movie that that has too many narrative strands, and too many ambitions, buy such is the case here. Which may explain why, ultimately, “Bank Job” is at its most effective as a heist thriller. We have not seen a good since “The Italian Job,” which itself was a remake of a 1970s film, but it is anybody’s guess whether the American public will embrace such a uniquely British tale.

Second, though Donaldson directs with an assured hand, injecting energy and suspense into the twisty plot, the movie’s shifting tone might upset some viewers, particularly when the satirical elements are brought in the midst of the suspense.

Cast

Terry Leather – Jason Statham
Martine – Saffron Burrows
Kevin – Stephen Campbell Moore
Dave – Daniel Mays
Guy Singer – James Faulkner
Bambas – Alki David
Eddie – Michael Jibson
Tim Everett – Richard Lintern
Gerald Pyke – Don Gallagher Lew Vogel – David Suchet
Michael X – Peter De Jersey
Gale Benson – Hattie Morahan

Credits

A Lionsgate (in U.S./U.K.) release of a Mosaic Media Group production, in association with Relativity Media, Omnilab Media Group.
Produced by Charles Roven, Steven Chasman. Executive producers, George McIndoe, Ryan Kavanaugh, David Alper, Alan Glazer, Gary Hamilton, Alex Gartner, Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, David Whealy.
Co-producer, Mairi Bett.
Directed by Roger Donaldson.
Screenplay, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais.
Camera: Michael Coulter.
Editor: John Gilbert.
Mmusic: J. Peter Robinson.
Production designer: Gavin Bocquet.
Art directors: Phil Harvey, Mark Scruton.
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux.
Sound: Simon Hayes; supervising sound editor, Andrew Neil.
Stunt coordinator: Greg Powell.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 110 Minutes.