'The Bank Job': Thieves Who Steal Our Hearts

Jason Statham as one of the blokes who stick it to the man in the heist film.
Jason Statham as one of the blokes who stick it to the man in the heist film. (By Jack English -- Lionsgate Via Bloomberg News)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

"The Bank Job" doesn't just give us license to enjoy two hours of grand larceny, it turns robbery into a rousing virtue.

That's because this heist flick -- based on the real Lloyds Bank raid of 1971 in London -- amounts to a holy war between the haves and the have-nots. That hoity-toity British lord, the one who likes to get handcuffed and dress in women's undies? Bad. Those MI5 agents shaking down the sex club proprietor? Evil. But those cockneys tunneling underground toward a vault full of other people's money, intent on stealing everything? They're heroes.

Why? Because they're hard-luck blokes, the plucky kind that used to go to war for the British Empire but nowadays are the first to get sacrificed in Machiavellian games designed to save the upper class from the embarrassment of scandal. And in this world of conniving cops, unprincipled spooks and other shady operators, the only victory is for the little man to walk away with the loot.

That's the premise of Roger Donaldson's highly entertaining movie, based on the few known facts of the original case. When the real robbers made off with a haul worth more than 4 million pounds from a Lloyds bank, the aftermath was anything but normal. No official arrests were made. No money was returned. And the government issued a gag order -- known as a D Notice -- on details of the crime. Days later, the whole matter had disappeared from the pages of Fleet Street. To outside observers, the conclusion was obvious: London had cleaned up after its own.

What happened to the perpetrators? What did they find in those security boxes? And what did a ham radio operator named Robert Rowlands hear when he intercepted walkie-talkie transmissions among the robbers? That's the conjectural starting point for Donaldson and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who weave a sort of postmodern Robin Hood allegory out of the whole affair.

When Terry (Jason Statham), owner of a failing car dealership in London, gets wind of a bank alarm system that has been temporarily shut off, he thinks he's walking into a sure thing. (And Lord knows, his loan sharks and family could use the money.) But we know better. We've seen the classy woman (Saffron Burrows) who got busted for carrying drugs into Heathrow -- just before she gives Terry the tip-off. We've met Michael X (Peter De Jersey), a black militant who owns something apparently so incriminating he can thumb his nose at Her Majesty's bewigged judges. We know what's coming.

Although "The Bank Job" provides all the knuckle-whitening rituals of the heist -- poring over blueprints, synchronizing wristwatches and disposing of tunnel dirt -- its real purpose is to expose the conspiracy around the thieves. The suspense amounts to whether Terry and his mates (a likable round of actors, including Daniel Mays and Stephen Campbell Moore) can beat the insidious odds. Which would make their venture, if successful, a victory for the underclass against the spooks and snobs of life. Who among our huddled, untitled masses can't get behind that?

We hasten to add, of course, that in real life we abhor bank robbers, those faceless enemies of society who steal our hard-earned cash only to end up -- we secretly picture -- face down on the sidewalk, hands bound and Glocks pressed against their temples. But in heist films, they become agents of our secret wish fulfillment, bagging and hauling what we dare not, ignoring consequences we dare not. So when a "Bank Job" comes along to make these crimes feel almost principled, well, we don't just feel good about rooting for the guys with the big white sacks, we feel right about it.

Perhaps most important, "The Bank Job" is effortless fun, moving along at the bright speed of a caper. There is no portentousness, no cultural or sociological lecture, just a pedigreed troupe of actors playing with polished abandon. No one can ever best Michael Caine as the ultimate cockney character of the silver screen (rent the 1966, non-Jude Law "Alfie" on Netflix right now and call me in the morning), but Statham will do nicely enough for this generation. (We fondly remember his work in Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch.") Well versed in the swagger and 'ow's yer father? lingo of the Londoner, he brings a likable, believable innocence to his role, as the character tries to make sense of the dark clouds enfolding him. We can't help but wish him Godspeed and riches.

The Bank Job (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, violence, sex and nudity.

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