I can tell you exactly when “Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers” stopped feeling like a documentary and started to look like a pitch for a heart-pounding heist flick starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
It was right around the time that the British film, which mixes interviews with animated reenactments to lay out the real-life exploits of a gang of international jewel thieves from the former Yugoslavia, presented its version of a notorious Spanish robbery. In the film’s telling, which is rendered like a grown-up cartoon by animation director Tony Comley, the gang’s femme fatale seduces the owner of the shop next door to the jewelry store so her cohorts can bust through the wall between the two businesses with sledgehammers. Then, after discovering that they can’t pick the lock on the safe, the gang — dubbed the Pink Panthers by Interpol for the similarity between one of their adventures to the 1964 film — is shown using a car jack to remove it, making a tire-squealing getaway through narrow side streets illuminated by the fireworks of an outdoor religious festival.
Of course, all of this is just a reenactment. Director Havana Marking wisely opens the film with actual security footage from an equally brazen heist. In it, we see thieves in sports cars crashing through the glass front doors of a downtown Dubai shopping mall before jumping out with crowbars to liberate diamonds, the gang’s favorite quarry, from their glass display cases.
Smash and grab, indeed. Marking knows how to get, and hold, a viewer’s attention.
But the story she tells is pretty hard to beat. The film uses a handful of voices to share it: mainly gang members Mike and Lena (both of whom are rendered in animation and voiced by actors using the real thieves’ words); journalist Milena Miletic; and Swiss detective Yan Glassey.
It’s a fascinating inside look, made all the more thrilling by Marking’s access to actual Pink Panthers. If the film bogs down in the middle, during an extended digression by Mike about the Balkan war and the economic roots of the gang’s illegal activities, it picks up steam again later. And as slow as the saggy midsection may be, such background actually provides useful context, helping us to understand the sometimes desperate forces — in addition to naked greed — that can lead to crime.
Other than footage of the conflict in the Balkans, the film shows no violence, and gang members make a point of noting, with a kind of perverse pride, that they left no “victims.” Of course, the very notion that diamond theft is a victimless crime — or that the moneybags who buy and sell the stuff can afford to lose a bit of it — is a romantic one, reinforced by the very Hollywood movies that “Smash and Grab” so closely resembles.
As for the implication that gang members had no other option than crime, the reporter Miletic debunks that suggestion too, saying that she might just as easily have turned to prostitution, but didn’t. There is always a choice, she says.
These excursions into moral and sociological themes are what makes “Smash and Grab” so intriguing, and what separate it from a kind of “Ocean’s Eleven”-style verite. The Pink Panthers’ crimes are really exciting, but the emphasis here is on the real.
The animation makes it all too easy to forget that we’re not watching make-believe. Toward the end of the film, the Pink Panthers’ arrest statistics provide a cold corrective to that. Since 2007, around 50 gang members have been arrested and imprisoned. And Mike, who pops pills from a pack of Valium, notes that even in retirement, he can’t walk down the street without looking over his shoulder. Both serve as reminders that, unlike in the movies, crime usually doesn’t pay.
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains bloody war footage, obscenity and brief nudity. 89 minutes.