Australian director Andrew Dominik's film Chopper was one of my favorite movies of 2000. Likewise, director Ray Lawrence's 2001 film Lantana was amazing, and Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence was simply brilliant. All three films are Australian, and top a rather lengthy list of movies that have come out of either Australia or New Zealand over the years, and have earned a special place in my heart. And while I have not seen every movie ever made in Australia or New Zealand, I don't recall ever seeing one that wasn't at least pretty damn good, which was what was running through my mind when I watched The Postcard Bandit. "It's from Australia," I said to myself. "How bad can it be?"
Inspired by the true story of legendary bank robber Brenden "BJ" Abbott (Tom Long), The Postcard Bandit takes place in 1990s Australia, when escaped-convict Abbott began a years-long crime spree of mythological proportions. As the film starts off, Abbott and his current partner in crime have been pulling off a series of daring bank robberies, and avoiding police capture at every turn. This is pretty much what happens throughout the course of film, as Abbott pairs up with a series of partners, including his crazy younger brother Glenn (Brett Stiller), and beds two different hotties. And while all this is going on, police all over the country are flummoxed by the criminal genius who can't be caught. Through a series of contrived events, the police end up with a roll of film with pictures Abbott took during one of his crime sprees. The police hope that by turning the photos over to the press, it will help call attention to the case. But the press instead glorifies Abbott and his actions, turning him into a cult hero. When Abbott finally gets captured, it's only a matter of time before he escapes again, and his legend grows even more.
Like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Postcard Bandit puts a romantic spin on a criminal, with the hopes of turning Abbott into the classic cinematic anti-hero. But the problem is that Abbott as a character is so lacking in dimension that the film never comes to life. The great film anti-heroes all exist in a morally ambiguous world, where despite their criminal actions, they are seen as heroes. Often times, these anti-heroes have a cinematic rebellious side to them, with law enforcement representing a societal conformity. In order for this to work, and for the bad guys to become the good guys, then the real good guys (the cops) need to represent an oppressive force. Unfortunately, The Postcard Bandit doesn't really do this. The cops pursuing Abbott--aside from not being interesting--are not sadistic or particularly oppressive. In fact, they are just regular guys trying to do their job, which never allows for any sort of ideological conflict to fully establish Abbott. And on the flip side, there is little done to portray Abbott as a rebel with a cause. He's just a not-that-interesting guy who robs banks.
Compared to Chopper, or perhaps more appropriately the under-appreciated South African film Stander, The Postcard Bandit simply comes across like a tired state of affairs. Chopper had Eric Bana, and Stander had Thomas Jane, and both actors hade the sort of weight to make their respective characters emotionally dense. Sadly, Tom Long lacks the charisma to sell the character of Brenden Abbott, and primarily comes across like a made-for-television version of Guy Pearce. Watching Long in action is a bit like watching a boy sent in to do a man's job. But it's not all Long's fault, as writer Peter Gawler and director Tony Tilse give him little to work with. Gawler's timid script fails to effectively convey what it was about Abbott that made him such an underground hero, and seems afraid to make him out to be too much of a bad guy (which in turn makes him out to be a bit of a pussy).
Perhaps part of the problem with The Postcard Bandit is that is depicts a criminal that is all but unknown in the United States. Maybe in Australia this film is like Goodfellas--some sort of masterpiece of crime cinema. But somehow I doubt that. Something tells me that no matter what country you're from, watching The Postcard Bandit will leave you pondering, "Is that all there is to it?"