An early title tells us that “The Bank Job” is based on a true story. In 1970, thieves tunneled into the safe deposit vault of an esteemed London bank and made off with more than 3 million pounds in jewelry and securities. To this day, there have been no arrests. But there was more to it than that, and director Roger Donaldson, (“The World’s Fastest Indian,” “13 Days”) and the eclectic writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (“Across the Universe,” “Flushed Away”) have conjured a complex brew of fact and fiction that keeps your head spinning for the movie’s full running time. That title sets up certain expectations. But five minutes in we’re knee deep in the familiar conventions of the heist genre: a bunch of guys on the outs, a femme fatale with a connection, a bank with a flawed security system, and some shady doings involving pictures taken during a vacation tryst in the Caribbean. Other than the puzzling opening on a beach, you know the territory. But that isn’t a bad thing, because in this case there’s a lot more to come. And it’s expertly handled. And surprise, Donaldson and company have used the story to effortlessly comment on English society during that time. Some one has taken compromising photos of a prominent higher-up letting loose in the sun. The photos are placed in a bank’s safe deposit box by a notorious black radical.
A former model (and this is the story’s weakest link) gets pressured into recruiting her criminally inclined friends to retrieve the photos after she gets pinched for drugs. That model, well played by Saffron Burrows, is a little too upper crust for this bunch, so we have to cut the movie a little slack in its opening reel. But we’re rewarded! The movie goes above and beyond the genre’s allegiance to plot twists and turnarounds. Civil servants, a pornographer, corrupt cops and several tiers of British society are credibly tied to circumstances here. The script pulls together so much information so quickly you’re hardly inclined to question it.
Be warned, if you leave your chair for more than a minute or so you’re likely to lose track of the tastier elements. The crooks, led by the sturdy presence of Jason Statham (“Transporter” and a host of other action movies) are believably thick. The caper is refreshingly low tech, and the gritty period details are spot on. The story doesn’t race so much as hurtle forward, with a minimum of violence. That the characters are stock and a lot of their dialogue perfunctory barely registers; they’re more than offset by expert plotting. An awkward romantic angle is mercifully brief.
As it ripens, “The Bank Job” turns surprisingly sober. Events devolve credibly from lark to nightmare. The foibles of one class take a lethal toll on others. Characters, when pressed, behave in recognizably human fashion. As it turns out, a civil servant linked by coincidence really did come to a grisly end. Two murders were never solved. Almost as important, the movie’s ending isn’t reliant on screeching tires and crashing metal! (For those in need of that, see “Vantage Point,” an enjoyable mess of a political thriller.) Because the writers, director, cast and production designer have cast an eye to reality they’ve given us a bit more than slick entertainment. This “job” is a pointed look backward. A technical note: “The Bank Job,” shot digitally, has a terrific look. It is moody without being stark, vividly detailed, and more. A lot of people still refer to this as “high def video,” which seems wrong to me. Digital filmmaking covers a vast range of “image capture,” and movies are moving wholesale into this newish format. Not to worry; it no longer looks anything like the “video” of news reporting or reality TV.
Roger Donaldson has directed everything from intimate dramas (“Smash Palace”) to lavish adventures (“The Bounty”) to docudramas (“13 Days”), all shot on film. In addition, he has worked as a cinematographer and production designer. During a Q and A after a screening of “The Bank Job,” he extolled the format, saying that he expects “film” to die off in the next few years. I’ll discuss this in a future column, but for now, take his word. He knows what he’s talking about.