‘The Bank Job’

A criminally classic caper


“The Bank Job” is one of those movies that somehow winds up being far, far better than it has any right to be.

First off, it’s a British gangster flick, a genre that suffered severe overkill after the success of Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” in 1998, and has been in steady decline ever since. (Latest example being Guy Ritchie himself with the misguided “Revolver.”) Second, it’s helmed by journeyman director Roger Donaldson, whose films have been all over the map, ranging from slick and shallow fare like “Species” and “Cocktail” to political drama like “13 Days,” and headscratchers like “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

Then take a look at the cast: You’ve got stock hard man Jason Statham (who actually rose to prominence in “Two Smoking Barrels”), who’s been bordering on self-parody lately in the “Transporter” and “Crank” action series. Opposite him is the lovely Saffron Burrows, the most stunning beauty in U.K. cinema who — like many stunning beauties — has found good roles hard to find. (“Troy,” anyone?) Even the film’s plot seems like a retread: Its milieu of hookers, politicians and blackmail was done quite well back in 1989 in “Scandal.”

So why, then, is “The Bank Job” so freaking good? Perhaps after the lazy, smarmy self-indulgence of the “Ocean’s Eleven” series, a taut, tense, and plausible heist flick is a welcome change. Maybe it’s because it’s based on an actual 1971 bank robbery in London that involved circumstances so sensational, a national-security directive placed a press gag on all reporting of the incident. And maybe it’s because you’ve got to love any film that includes a line in the credits saying, “The names have been changed to protect the guilty.”

The Bank Job
Director Roger Donaldson
Run Time 100 minutes
Language English

The heist that took place at a Lloyds Bank branch on Baker Street on Sept. 13, 1971, resulted in a take of some £3 million (equivalent to 10 times that in today’s currency) from the vault’s safety deposit boxes, and “The Bank Job” speculates that amid the jewels and cash there may have been even more valuable — and sensitive — items seized by the thieves.

Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (known for U.K. television series like “Porridge” and “The Likely Lads”) claim to have inside knowledge provided by a source close to the robbers. The theory they put forth in the film is that the robbery was a black-bag operation instigated by the British secret-service agency MI-5 (or its sister, MI-6) to recover compromising photos of a member of the royal family that were stored in a safety-deposit box. The person holding the photos — again, as alleged by the writers — was one Michael X, a drug dealer and pimp who modeled himself as a Malcolm X-style black radical and used the photographs — and their blackmail potential — as a “get out of jail free” card. The robbers themselves had no idea what they were getting into.

Of course, the robbers would say that.

But “The Bank Job” spins a tale of corruption — including politicians, public-school old boys in the security services, porn barons and crooked coppers — that is all too plausible. Saffron Burrows plays Martine Love, an ex-model of loose morals and tight lips who finds herself in trouble when nabbed in Heathrow customs carrying heroin in her bag. She makes a call to a high-placed “friend” (Richard Lintern) who pulls strings to get her released, but the deal is she has to convince some of her shady East End acquaintances to rob the vault of a certain bank.

Martine recruits her old neighborhood friend and not-quite flame Terry Leather (Statham) and his buddies Kev and Dave (Stephen Campbell Moore and Daniel Mays) to run the heist. Terry is suspicious, but he owes some bad people a lot of money and decides to take the risk.

Terry and his gang are strictly small-time crooks, and the film is initially played for laughs as they bumble through their prep for the heist. Donaldson ramps up the tension considerably as the gang tunnels its way into the bank from a storefront down the street.

In an incredible (but true) turn of events, the police get wind that a London bank robbery is taking place, but don’t know which bank and attempt to flush the robbers out. Things take a very dark and brutal turn when the gang emerges and realize they have seized a bunch of documents and photos — including those of a respected lord engaging in sadomasochistic sex at a brothel — that will have some very powerful people wanting them dead.

The roles here are all pretty one-dimensional, but they are executed perfectly: Statham has a sharp, penetrating gaze that could melt rubber, the type of look you’d best not be lying too. Burrows, for her part, has that cautious, canny look of a survivor, of someone who’s learned how to play people and has no qualms about doing so. And Lintern gives us the anti-007 look at MI-5, his smug smile revealing the callousness of a man who has no problem sacrificing people — especially his social inferiors — to get the job done.

The filmmakers do a great job at re-creating early 1970s London (in a nonironic way), right down to T-Rex on the soundtrack, and the George Best and Bianca Jagger-inspired looks for its characters. Donaldson takes us through the details of the robbery on actual anachronistic London locations, and gives the film a gritty, ’70s-cinema look that is entirely satisfying. “The Bank Job” may or may not be the answer to the mystery surrounding this long covered-up heist, but either way, it’s a corker.