A title card at the end of "The Bank Job" tells us that the names were changed "to protect the guilty." And oh, how everyone is guilty here in this great big web of crime. Repeatedly using a delicious bit of early-70s Brit slang, the screenplay refers to certain characters as "villains," perhaps to help separate the common thieves and uncommon crime lords from the more upscale guilty parties, the judges and politicians and members of the royal family.
The film is a real, honest-to-goodness throwback to the golden age of caper flicks, using its old school charms to offer a fictionalized rendition of the 1971 Baker Street robbery. The infamous heist made the London papers at the time thanks to a recording made by a ham radio operator who overheard the thieves' walkie-talkie communications - and then things got really interesting as the news disappeared from the news as quickly as it entered, thanks to a mysterious "D notice" gag order from the government.
Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (creators of the classic BBC sitcoms "Porridge" and "The Likely Lads" and, more recently, scripters of "Across the Universe" and "Flushed Away") have spent the past several years claiming they've uncovered insider information on the robbery; whether or not the Deep Throat-esque informant is real or just the invention of clever marketing doesn't really matter, as "The Bank Job" does a bang-up job blending fact and fiction to deliver a fascinating possible reality that takes the tales of street hoods, pornographers, MI-5 agents, and a drug-smuggling Malcolm X wannabe and links them all, marvelously, incredulously, to the heist.
At the center is the brilliantly named Terry Leather (a smartly cast Jason Statham), a crooked used car dealer in debt to the mob. Old flame Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) makes him an offer: she knows of a bank that's ripe for the picking, and would he be willing to help relieve the safe deposit boxes of their contents? That Terry and his boys aren't bank robbers doesn't matter; indeed, it'll make them less obvious suspects.
But Martine has a secret. She's been hired by British Intelligence to retrieve some compromising photos of a British royal. It turns out these racy pics are being held by black activist/drug lord Michael X, a revolutionary who sidesteps prosecution through extortion - as long as the government stays off his back, he'll keep the photos secret. If Martine can nab the pics, MI-5, who has agents undercover in Michael X's organization, can move in for the kill.
This criss-crossing of British modern history is ingenious, never mind any possible leaps in logic required to get there. It's not just the Michael X story, either; the script weaves in details involving several scandals of the time, with cops on the take and politicians busted for prostitution. Watching Clement and La Frenais juggle all these threads makes for clever storytelling, even if you're unfamiliar with the real life stories being borrowed for this yarn. The expanse of conspiracies gives "The Bank Job" a nice heft, deeper than your usual in-and-out caper.
The film is essentially split in two. The first half focuses on the crime itself, with Terry organizing his team of misfits as they plan for the lengthy dig underneath a city block. It's a job that requires an entire weekend of work, which allows for such unexpected moments as the scene where, upon completing the break-in, the crew decides they have time to nap. There's little threat of being caught, although director Roger Donaldson still manages to include several scenes of great tension, thanks to the nervous lookout on the roof and his close calls. The fun's in how they do it, and the real-life caper seen here - completed, mind you, back in the rotary phone days, without the use of high-tech equipment featured in so many modern heist films - is a dandy.
The second half deals with the aftermath of the robbery, when Terry and the gang realize what they've stolen. Not just loot, but all those pics - beyond the few Martine was hunting - and more. The reason for a safe deposit box, the script reminds us, is so customers can keep things secret, which is great for keeping them quiet about what's been stolen (cops can't come hunting if they don't know what's missing), but not so much when you're now holding very important documents belonging to very dangerous men. The final chapter leaves Terry struggling to set up deal after deal, scheme after scheme, in hopes of the gang keeping the loot and their lives.
It's all such a low-key affair, which is a risky choice considering the slam-bang preferences of today's audiences. Donaldson (whose diverse career tops with "The World's Fastest Indian" and bottoms with "Cocktail") smartly sidesteps a slick visual style, opting for delicately paced grit. There's a retro feel to the mood that fits perfectly with the era it depicts, with the suspense, comedy, and action all coming across in mild doses. This is a chilled movie, cool, casual, always under-the-top, yet never once boring. And in balancing all those storylines, real and imagined, like a champion plate spinner, "The Bank Job" becomes a fully satisfying crime caper experience.
Lionsgate is releasing "The Bank Job" in separate one-disc and two-disc editions. Reviewed here is the two-discer, which arrives in a single-wide keepcase. (Note: The single-disc release reportedly includes no bonus material but does contain a pan-and-scan transfer, exclusive to that release, in addition to the widescreen version.)
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is as subdued as the movie itself, with muted colors and a pinch of softness, deftly copying the look of the film's theatrical presentation. There are no compression issues or other digital flaws.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is rich and detailed. Music and effects sparkle but always take a backseat to the crisp dialogue. An equally solid stereo mix is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Donaldson, Burrows, and composer J. Peter Robinson team up for a commentary, with the group setting allowing for a satisfyingly complete discussion of the film's creation.
"Inside The Bank Job" (16:42) is a general yet nicely detailed behind-the-scenes feature, with plenty of discussion time given to the actual crime and how it inspired the long-in-the-making screenplay. (Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with film clips properly letterboxed.)
"The Baker Street Bank Raid" (14:52) is a nice history lesson that mixes archival footage, film clips, and interviews with the filmmakers in running down the particulars of the 1971 heist. (1.78:1 anamorphic; film clips, while properly letterboxed, seem too stretched out and narrow, as if sourced from a non-anamorphic transfer, then pulled horizontally to fit the wider frame. Weird.)
A set of deleted scenes (6:15) are mainly tiny bits of extra character business clipped to help the film's rhythm. Some added romance between Terry and Martine helps explain the tension between Terry and his wife later in the movie. Optional commentary by Donaldson, Burrows, and Robinson explains the cuts. (2.35:1 anamorphic.)
The film's original trailer is sleek yet spolierish. (2.35:1 anamorphic.)
A gallery of previews for other Lionsgate releases rounds out the set; these trailers also play as the disc loads.
Disc Two consists of nothing but a digital copy of the movie, for use on either iTunes or Windows Media Player (or "compatible portable device"). I'm no fan of digital copies, which seem to exist only to jack up the price, but there you go.
Despite the unnecessary inclusion of the digital copy on Disc Two, everything on Disc One is high quality, with an excellent transfer, top notch extras, and, of course, a heck of a film. Highly Recommended.