(CNN) -- There really was a "Bank Job."
Daniel Mays and Jason Statham dig deep in "The Bank Job."
" 'Rififi' ... with words!" ran the headline in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper on September 14, 1971, a reference to the classic 1955 heist movie with its famous 20-minute near-silent robbery.
But the thieves who had broken into the safe-deposit vault of a Baker Street bank the previous weekend were not so tight-lipped. In fact, they were almost caught red-handed when a radio ham picked up the banter between the gang -- digging a 40-foot tunnel from two doors down -- and their lookout, perched on top of a building nearby.
It was obvious that something fishy was going on, but neither the radio ham nor the police could pinpoint where the crime was going down, and the "walkie-talkie gang" made a clean getaway.
Before the week was out, the story had vanished from the press: The government had slapped a "D notice" on the story, banning further publication. Or so the publicity for "The Bank Job," an ingenious but fanciful elaboration on the crime, would have us believe.
Veteran screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments") have concocted a plausible, if potentially defamatory, conspiracy theory involving compromising photos of Princess Margaret, black power agitator Michael X, Lord Mountbatten and garage owner Terry Leather (Jason Statham), all of whom are dead or fictional (if not both).
It's Terry who assembles the gang when he's tipped to a potential big score by model Martine (Saffron Burrows). In fact, they're both pawns in a bigger game controlled by the British Secret Service, out to retrieve the dirty pictures before the queen's sister is embarrassed in public.
Complicating matters is the unfortunate coincidence that Soho smut peddler Lew Vogel (Hercule Poirot himself, David Suchet) also has a safe-deposit box at the bank; it's where he keeps records of his payoffs to the coppers.
The early stages are as generic as the title. Director Roger Donaldson ("The World's Fastest Indian") is an old pro who has been making movies since the 1970s, and he works in the muscular, no-frills shooting style known from staple British crime dramas like "Get Carter" and "The Long Good Friday." (Another minor classic from the era, 1971's "Villain" starring Richard Burton and a young Ian McShane, was written by Messrs. Clement and La Fresnais.)
A protégé of Guy Ritchie's who became an international action star under the auspices of Luc Besson, Statham ("The Transporter") nearly gets through the movie without beating anyone up -- nearly, but not quite. He's not a particularly expressive actor -- or, at least, what he expresses doesn't run much beyond pent-up aggression, a permanently knotted brow and an aversion to shaving -- but he's an authentic working-class geezer, and he carries the film on his shoulders without a shrug.
Burrows is all eyeliner and cheekbones as Martine, a plum presence in an underwritten role. Much the same could be said of most of the supporting cast, a vivid rogues gallery from top to cheekily exposed bottom.
As so often in heist movies, it's the aftermath that delivers the drama. In this case, there are so many competing factions trying to pull the strings, the bank robbers find themselves hung up in a cat's cradle of establishment corruption, underworld racketeering and the traditional corrupt police. In comparison with this lot, Terry looks like a proto-Thatcherite entrepreneur, just trying to get ahead of the game.
His time will come. As for "The Bank Job," it's a modest caper with enough class to pass for the real thing.
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