It’s as clever as they come. It has a script that manages to ultimately link together nearly every little throwaway oddity in the film in a unique and satisfying manner. It boasts the least tiresomely fussy direction of Barry Levinson’s career. It features three stars/personalities in the leads, who have never been more likable, and strong support from Troy Garity . It may be stretching its one-joke premise at 123 minutes, but it’s sufficiently engaging and off-the-beaten-path enough to be constantly entertaining while it’s onscreen. And therein lies its major problem: Once it’s not onscreen, the film evaporates into nothingness. You can remember that you had a good time watching it and some of its peculiarities and occasional flourishes remain clear, but all those snappy one-liners that seemed so clever in the course of the movie have been lost in the maze of Bandits’ sheer plot complexity. It would like to be a modern-day Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which it resembles to an almost plagiaristic degree, but it lacks the one thing that raises its parent model to something like greatness: a heart. Instead, it ends up feeling a bit more like the misbegotten Jack Nicholson-Warren Beatty teaming of The Fortune. The characters in Bandits are likable, but they’re grounded in little more than movie-star reality. We enjoy their antics and respond to their repartee less because we’re responding to the characters than because we’re responding to the stars. And that’s fine. It’s entertaining and fun, but there’s absolutely no emotional resonance. (It’s significant that the film’s most emotionally engaging character is played by Troy Garity, the least established of the performers.) As a fun caper romp, Bandits is hard to beat, even though it lacks the kind of heist centerpiece that really needs to be at the heart of any such tale. Willis and Thornton are convicts who break out of prison and — with the aid of a magic marker — become bank robbers, launching themselves on a career of crime that makes them the most successful bank robbers in history . All goes well for them until they run afoul of over-emotional neglected housewife Cate Blanchett (described by Thornton as “unbalanced to a spectacular degree”), who complicates things by falling in love with both of them: Between the two, they make the perfect man in her eyes. The plot twists and turns around this three-pronged relationship as they pursue their criminal career, leading to a climax that can be excused its central obviousness by virtue of the way it ties so many seemingly inessential elements of the film together. There’s nothing all that new in the film, but the stars give a lot of it the illusion of freshness by their energetic playing. The trio of stars are so obviously having a good time that it’s impossible not to be caught up in their giddiness. Thornton in particular imbues the film with a special quirkiness by being at once the most rational of the three and the screwiest in his procession of psychological peculiarities (at least one of which — a fear of antique furniture — is said to actually afflict the actor) and psychosomatic ailments. The screenplay by Harley Peyton (best known for his work on TV’s Twin Peaks) is undeniably inventive and one suspects — owing to the way much of this is actually part of the script — that the film’s savvy use of pop and rock music is more his contribution than the director’s. (It would be interesting to know, for example, if the script indicated the inclusion of Page and Plant’s “Gallow’s Pole” on the soundtrack during the prison break.) Interestingly, the combination of star power and the intricacies of the script seems to have forced director Levinson into an unusually unintrusive approach, resulting in perhaps his most purely enjoyable movie. It’s also a nice turn of events in our increasingly uptight age to find a movie with a cheerfully amoral ending. However, all this adds up to such a transitory good time that it seems like a joke you can’t remember, but you know you laughed at.
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