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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Bank Job

The workmanlike title “The Bank Job” is a nice fit for this wham-bam caper flick. Efficiently directed by Roger Donaldson from a busy script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, (The thieves squawked on the airwaves like crows.) It was headline news and, then, with a wave of the official wand, it was hush-hush. That’s one story, anyway.

The Bank Job is a good match for this wham-bam caper flick.directed by high effective Roger Donaldson,script by Dick Clement and Ian La fancifully revisits the mysterious whos and speculative hows of a 1971 London vault cleanout on Baker Street labeled the walkie-talkie robbery.The robbery was a big headline news.

True or not, the on-screen follies mostly amuse and generally divert. Smarting up from a tip, a gang of charming lowlifes of varying capabilities and intelligence make like moles, tunneling under a women’s handbag store until they hit the vault: safe-deposit boxes crammed with sparkling treasures, fistfuls of bank notes and delectable smut involving some Very Important Personages. The thieves — led by the bullet-headed looker Jason Statham as Terry — scoop up their ill-gotten goods and scram. Assorted coppers and villains give chase, as do some stiff-lip types in bespoke suits from the British security services.

The filmmakers have claimed that the British government put a kibosh on media reports about the robbery by issuing a D Notice (now called a DA Notice, for defense advisory), a form of media self-censorship jointly agreed upon by representatives of the press and the government. Though The Guardian Published an article that explained that no D Notice had been issed after the heist, but the truth is usually beside the point when it comes to this sort of breezy entertainment, so it’s hard to care. Far more important is the way Mr. Statham, a B-movie action pinup (“The Transporter”), pumps like a piston across the screen and fills out his natty leather coat, both of which he does with palpable brute force.

Blink and you may well miss the whodunit and what for, much less what does it all mean (if anything). Stuffed with personalities, the fast, fast, fast story unfolds somewhat like a three-dimensional chess game, with the pieces moving among the different levels: on the bottom are Terry and his lads, the shaggy-haired Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the snaggle-toothed Dave (Daniel Mays); in the middle are the designated villains, including a charismatic if dubious black-power gadfly, Michael X (Peter De Jersey), and the so-called Soho porn king, Lew Vogel (David Suchet); and, on the very top, pulling strings or so they believe, are the security services, represented by the well-heeled silky and sneery Tim (Richard Lintern).

Mixed in with this dodgy crowd is a question mark named Martine, a pulpy femme fatale who’s been sensitively shaded in by Saffron Burrows. A former model, this angular, melancholic beauty has, after making the usual independent rounds — Mike Figgis directed her in his screen adaptation of the Strindberg play “Miss Julie” — slowly and somewhat unexpectedly emerged as an actress to watch. Sadness clings to Ms. Burrows: it hoods her eyes, tugs at her mouth and wraps around her like a gossamer shawl. It gives her mystery and, like the hints of age edging her face, blunts the impact of her beauty, making her character more human and emotionally accessible than she might register otherwise.

Ms. Burrows is particularly welcome, given that the caper itself is pretty much a yawn. Central to the pleasure of a great heist film is the spectacle of men (rarely women) at work, men who through their hard labor, their sweat and stratagems — and, if they’re in a Jean-Pierre Melville film, their honor — defy the law and society. (There’s a reason so many of these movies seem like metaphors for moviemaking.) The walkie-talkie gang, by contrast, comes across here as more lucky than cunning. They blunder into the heist, at times comically, which amps the laughs, but helps drain what little suspense remains after Mr. Donaldson has whisked his characters through their paces, and the ruthlessly efficient editing has nipped at their heels.

Amid all the period wheeling and stealthy dealing, the story carves out a little time for a short detour involving Michael X — also known as Michael de Freitas, also known as Michael Abdul Malik — a native of Trinidad who became a radical-chic figure in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s and, years later, cannon fodder for the writer V. S. Naipaul, who saw him as a fraud. The film’s cartoonish depiction of Michael X doesn’t begin to do justice to the strangeness of his story — he partied with John Lennon and was championed by William S. Burroughs, Dick Gregory and Heinrich Böll — though it adds a nicely outré detail to this embroidered fiction. Maybe Mr. Statham can play Mr. Burroughs in the sequel.

“The Bank Job” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Some nasty, nasty blowtorch violence.

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