Cinema | Proper Villains: Only the bad guys are good guys in the slick heist thriller The Bank Job 

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I wouldn’t want to live in the world of The Bank Job, in which absolutely everyone is corrupt except for the bad guys. Wait: I guess we already do. Sure, of course we do, because this is based on a true story, and what’s most interesting about the truth of it is not the criminal derring-do, but the audacity of everyone else, none of whom would dare to call themselves criminals, even though they are.

It’s like this. In September 1971, the British newspapers were full of the news of the brazen robbery of a safe-deposit vault at a Baker Street bank. There are some astonishing details that, if you’re up on your London urban legends—since this really did happen, we need to use that word only in the sense of “legendary,” not in the sense of “mythological”—you probably already know. But I won’t reveal them here, because if you don’t already know them, they add a refreshingly original suspense to what’s unfolding onscreen. Suffice to say that the cops manage to find out about the robbery while it’s in progress, and they still can’t do a damned thing to stop it.

Calculations on the losses to the thieves are attempted, but the figure is literally incalculable. These are safe deposit boxes. This is where people put their valuable stuff when they don’t want the bank to know what they’re hiding. Hardly anyone comes forward to make a claim against their losses.

And then—and here is where the really insidious, really juicy conspiracy-theory stuff comes in—after a few days, the story disappears from the newspapers. It’s just gone, like it never existed. Rumors of a government cover-up abound. Rumors run wild about what could possibly have been stolen from those boxes—maybe just one of those boxes—that would prompt the government to quash the story.

That’s where The Bank Job exists, in the delicious space between all of the unknowns, filling in those blanks, guessing on some of it but working from as many possibly known quantities as it can. Maybe it’s not the 100 percent truth—maybe it’s half, or more, invented. But it’s a damned good guess, and a ridiculously entertaining one.

Jason Statham—whom I’ve never much liked before, but who’s perfect here—leads a band of, well, patsies, though of course they don’t know that’s what they are. They’ve been set up to pull off this break-in and take out something that the British covert agencies really, really need to keep secret. The someone it belongs to is threatening to go public with it, and it’s that someone’s box the thing needs to be stolen from. Statham’s small-time crook Terry cooks up a careful plan for the job, but he’s suspicious, of course, of the old girlfriend, Martine (Saffron Burrows), who brought it to him, and he’s right to be. Terry ain’t the brightest bulb, but he ain’t totally stupid, either, and he knows she’s up to something.

We do too, which is part of the brilliance of the script by the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe, Flushed Away). We know more than Terry does, and even if we don’t know it all, even if we can’t guess how it’s all going to shake out, we know it’s not going to be good—but it is going to be a whole helluva lot of fun getting there. That much is obvious from the get-go.

Did I say I didn’t want to live in this world? It’s not so bad, actually, if we’ve got no choice. Director Roger Donaldson (The Recruit, Thirteen Days) makes the cynicism of not being able to trust anyone but a crook like Terry—who’s not a bad guy at all, even if his work is a bit shady—seem like an OK place to be. And The Bank Job ends up being a fresh and cheery spin on the heist movie. Because it really is easy to root for Terry and his gang, like we always want to root for the villains in movies like these. The acknowledged villains are the only ones worth rooting for.

THE BANK JOB

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Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows
Rated R

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MaryAnn Johanson

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