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The Bank Job

Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job, which I hope will launch Jason Stason into stardom, is set in 1971, when the actual heist upon which its story is based occurred. I don't know what to make of the fact that the film didn't look very dated to me. Whenever Hollywood sets a film in the Seventies, the fact is rammed right through the screen, with plenty of old cars in ghastly colors and ridiculous hair. Maybe things just never got that out of hand in England. Maybe it was in the Seventies that Cool Britannia began to look and feel the way it does today. Certainly the plethora of posh cars doesn't look dated. Those old Jags are as prized today as they ever were, and of course the Mini Cooper is back, as Mr Stason's last Job film delighted in reminding us.

Whatever it was, The Bank Job made me feel young, not old. It made 1971 seem relatively carefree, not terminally kitschy.

The first thing to know about this movie is that Saffron Burrows joins the ranks of iconic British beauties who can act, in the mold of Charlotte Rampling. Like Ms Rampling, she has a face that looks haunted at rest, as if something quite unspeakable happened in the past, and wary, as if that something might happen again. This certainly makes her a good fit for Martine, a compromised beauty. The film exploits the smart beauty's ability to fob off male curiosity with a smile and a plausible remark. This in turn promotes Mr Stason's achievement, because while his Terry Leather is obviously very taken by Martine, he's not taken in by her, or not quite. For a man who hangs around fancy cars (at least in the films), Terry's vanity is surprisingly moderate.  

The second thing to know is that The Bank Job isn't really about a bank job, but about what happens afterward. The break-in at the Marylebone branch of Lloyd's is merely the central maneuver in a complex Intelligence attempt to clamp down on black activist Michael X (Peter de Jersey) by swiping his secret weapon (scandalous photographs of Princess Margaret). The thieves, whom Martine has recruited at the instructions of her sometime lover, the James-Bondish Tim Everett (Richard Lintern), are unaware of this objective; they've simply been told that the bank's alarms will be shut off for a few days. They burrow and blast their way into the safe-deposit vault where the photographs are stowed in box 118, and they make off with oodles of cash and other valuables. It turns out that a lot of those valuables are not unlike the "royal portraits": good for blackmail.

Or, it may be, life preservers. Terry and his pirates figure out right away that they've nabbed some very naughty photographs of men in high places and little clothing, taken at a high-end brothel. But they don't know that they've got the payoffs ledger of a vice lord (David Suchet), incriminating a number of senior police officers, until it's too late for one of their number, the hapless Dave (Daniel Mays), an innocent former porn star if there ever was one. Once Terry is brought up to speed, however, he begins playing his non-liquid assets like a deck of cards, and the caper film takes on the flash of a shell game.

Mr Donaldson aims for a sense of constriction rather than dizzying speed, underlining the feeling that most of his characters don't enjoy the full freedom of movement. Never before have I seen a move stress, as The Bank Job does unobtrusively but unmissably, the fact that the Underground's tunnels are only a few hairs wider than the trains that move through them. The director is not above tossing in the odd red herring, as in a heated scene between Terry and his wife, Wendy (Keeley Hawes), when the lock door's handle twitches while one of their daughters cries out for their attention.

The performances are all extremely good. In addition to those already named, Stephen Campbell Moore is almost self-effacing as Kevin, a chum of Terry's who has also had a fling with Martine. Hattie Morahan, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson, and Alistaire Petrie are among the few supporting players whom I could identify later. The Bank Job doesn't feel like a big movie, but it is one, with a large cast of fully-drawn characters and a skein of intersecting plots. Jason's Statham's has the wit to let his character dominate the film by making him the one most likely to be trusted by the audience; this allows him to be keyed-up and yet vaguely presidential. There are lots of really good heist movies out there, but Mr Statham knows how to The Bank Job to their number while making it not quite like any of the others. It's easily one of the best. (March 2008)

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