Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job (2008) is a crackerjack B-movie thriller, the kind of small-scale, unfussy film you don't really see anymore--not since Steven Soderbergh inflated the caper flick into celebrity-studded megaproductions with his Danny Ocean movies.
Based on the true story of the Baker Street Walkie-Talkie bank robbers back in 1971, it quickly sketches the circumstances before the robbery: protagonist Terry Leather (Jason Stratham) owns a car-sales garage just a few unsold vehicles short of bankruptcy; he's contacted by old flame Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) who suggests that he knock over Lloyd's Bank--seems that the bank's alarm is being set off by the rumble of a nearby train, and is being replaced; in the meantime the vault just sits there, unmonitored, ripe for the picking.
Terry and his gang of petty criminals leased out a leather goods shop and began tunneling past the Chicken Inn restaurant to reach the bank vault. By way of a lookout, they have Eddie (Michael Jibson) as lookout, communicating with the tunnelers via walkie-talkie (sort of like a cellphone, only about the size of a good-sized barbell). One might wonder at the stupidity of the idea--two-way radio is about as private as shouting messages from a rooftop--but apparently that's what the gang did, and more it almost worked: no one took notice of the radio signals, and they were careful enough not to identify themselves, or their location.
Almost; one Robert Rowland had been playing with his ham radio set when he overheard these conversations; he had their talks recorded, and tried warning the police (it's these recordings of the transmissions, later broadcast to the public, that gave the gang their nickname).
The heist itself is competently staged and filmed; perhaps not as vividly as in Jules Dassin's Du Rififi chez les hommes (1958)--still the standard by which one measures all other cinematic heists--but competently enough. The real suspense starts after the robbery--turns out the gang had stolen more of value than they realized; turns out some of the items were of enormous value to a ring of corrupt police officers who promptly attempt to hunt down the gang members, and that another box contained a secret that if revealed would rock the royal family.
(There might be more to this subplot than the filmmakers are willing to admit, according to a Chicago Reader article--apparently one of the producers has talked to two of the men involved in the heist)
Anything beyond that was open to speculation for decades: four days after news of the robbery broke, a "D order" was issued, silencing all further news on the affair--and that was more or less that. Much of the stolen goods were never recovered by the police, and the loot that they did recover were mostly left unclaimed.
Donaldson, working with the scriptwriting team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (British TV veterans who once wrote for Tracy Ullman and, recently, Flushed Away (2006)), used the input of one George McIndoe (an 'associate producer,' he had actually met two of the robbers) to flesh out the missing pieces behind the heist. It's a tangled web of conspiracy stretching from the streets of London to the rainforests of Martinique, and Terry's gang turn out to be as much string puppets as they are puppet masters.
The cast is excellent--I'd point out the gorgeous Burrows, Richard Lintern, Daniel Mays, Peter de Jersey and above all David Suchet as being especially fine. Statham as an actor I consider--to put it charitably--severely limited (if Dorothy Parker had once said of Katherine Hepburn that she "ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B" (a charge I disagree with, incidentally) Statham would be hard put to inspire thoughts of a second alphabet, much less one). Here, though, Statham is rendered life-sized--no more, no less--and this locating him in a realistic setting for once makes for a startling change: he's grounded, he's definitely lower middle class, and he's surprisingly persuasive as a man sitting on a pot of both gold wired with dynamite, wondering if he'll make it through, or if it'll all go up beneath his butt.
Donaldson, Clement and La Frenais not only manage to keep each strand clear and distinct, they manage to maintain a lively pace without resorting to the modern editor's tiresome bag of tricks--jump cuts, freeze frames, so on and so. When at one point a captured gang member is questioned, the scenes of his interrogation are done in a harrowingly direct and simple manner: show the equipment, show what it can do, let the audience experience the rest in their heads (all this done in roughly the amount of time it would actually take--Eli Roth or the filmmakers of the Saw movies would, by way of comparison, have lingered over the scene).
It's a particularly keen pleasure to see Donaldson directing again a modestly financed but expertly crafted effort. I still remember how it felt watching Smash Palace, the remarkable 1981 drama he had directed and co-written, about a junk yard owner and his bitter divorce from an unfaithful wife--the film had a crude poetry to it, the way it allowed the huge piles of crushed cars to effortlessly become a metaphor for the couple's shattered lives. This was during an equally remarkable period in New Zealand and Australian cinema--George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981) and Peter Weir's Gallipoli had hit the screens the same year, and Bruce Beresford had released Breaker Morant the year before. At that time the studios Down Under seemed like a magic place, their filmmakers artists who could do almost anything.
Donaldson showed skill not only at writing dialogue and handling actors, but also at staging effective, coherent action sequences, and managed to parlay this skill into a career in Hollywood (Donaldson also knew how to stage knockout sex scenes (witness the heated exchange between Bruno Lawrence and Anna Maria Monticelli)--but to date, aside from a neat introduction to No Way Out (1987), he hasn't done much with this equally interesting talent). It was a deal done with the Devil; Donaldson went on to do increasingly impersonal work (Cocktail (1988), Species (1995)) while honing his action filmmaking skills (No Way Out in particular was a fine example of sustained suspense in a confined space). I'd talked to a filmmaker friend of Donaldson, who reported that he was constantly bemoaning the fact that he couldn't do a Smash Palace anymore--the money was too good, no matter what he might think of the results. The Bank Job represents at least a partial return to form--a good story told as well as possible. Here's to hoping he makes a full return, somehow, someday.
First published in Businessworld, 07.25.08