Roger Donaldson’s fact-based The Bank Job establishes its 1970s cred as soon as Marc Bolan’s guitar kicks in with “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” over the releasing company logo, and it keeps it up through its opening sequence and most of its early scenes. There’s an effortless feel of the era with Terry Leather’s (Jason Statham) failing car dealership and its Austin Healey 100/6 and E Type Jaguar on display (as nothing special, just used cars) and the hairstyles and the makeup (especially on Georgia Taylor). The nightclub blaring the Kinks’ “Lola” feels right, too, as does the radical dinner party (complete with not entirely convincing John and Yoko doubles in attendance).
All this suggests that we’re in for something special, something that’s going to get it right. And in some ways, Donaldson and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (the duo who wrote the script for Across the Universe) did get it right. In fact, I think Clement and La Frenais got it right throughout the film, but Donaldson can’t seem to keep the atmosphere going once the movie gets to the bank heist itself, which turns out to be far less interesting than the setup and the aftermath. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the robbery, but there’s nothing very special about it either, and it causes the midsection of The Bank Job to drag a bit.
Worse, the film loses the flavor of the beginning, and it’s that flavor that gives the story the resonance that raises it to a level substantially greater than that found in a standard caper flick. Clement and La Frenais are certainly capable of writing a caper movie. They did so back in 1967 with Michael Winner’s The Jokers, a very fine piece of British Invasion “Swinging London” filmmaking. But they’re after something different here: They’re after a sense of the morning after that time. The enthusiasm, optimism and free-spirited sense of the ‘60s are here giving way to the creeping desperation of the ‘70s. The cracks are showing in the idols and ideals of the era—on both the establishment and antiestablishment fronts.
In 1967, Clement and La Frenais’ crooks were upscale pretty people (Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed) out to steal the crown jewels mostly just to prove that they could. The thieves of 1971 are not only driven by their own desperation, but also by that of a woman, Martine (Saffron Burrows), trying to get out from under a drug-smuggling charge and the British government itself trying to get a hold of incriminating photos of Princess Margaret’s sexual antics. These photos—locked away in a safe-deposit box in the Baker Street branch of Lloyd’s Bank—are being used by a phony, self-serving black radical, Michael X (stage and TV actor Peter De Jersey), to keep the government from prosecuting him for everything from drug dealing to pimping to God knows what. As long as he holds this threat, they’re powerless—and it doesn’t help matters that Michael X is the current last word in radical chic (hence the John and Yoko reference). The undercurrent to all this is that not only is the government and the upper class corrupting and bamboozling the public, but the radical alternative to the status quo is as bad or worse and doing the same to a select element of the public. (As Mr. Townshend famously wrote, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”)
This fuels the film. Happily, the ending is as good as the opening. The ending may even be better with its amusingly bitter depiction of the widespread kinky corruption of the government (accidentally uncovered in the robbery), the scrambling of the authorities to cover it all up and Lord Mountbatten’s (Chris Owens) choicely smug, cavalier comment on it all. This is great stuff—and it’s handled brilliantly and played expertly by a choice cast. Unfortunately, the sagging heist section—and even some of the scenes involving recruiting the gang—so smack of the ordinary that the overall film never achieves the greatness its individual components promise. It’s good, and it’s clever, and sometimes it’s much more—but not quite enough of the time. Rated R for nudity, language and violence.