“Based on a true story,” brags The Bank Job before diving into the clear blue water of a Caribbean island, where, in 1970, a topless woman frolics with two swimming mates — just another day in paradise. The trio retire to a hotel room for a sweaty, breathless afternoon quickie, which is photographed by a peeping Tom who will later turn out to be the militant British Black Power figure Michael X, who stores the pictures in a London safe-deposit box for safekeeping. Because, you see, one of the women peeped through the window is royalty: Princess Margaret, who often retreated to the island with her gardener boyfriend, according to the English press. Not so many photographers around — except this one man, on this one day. Lucky.
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Only, MI5 would like those photos, if you please, so it corrals some amateur villains to do its dirty work — which is to say, breaking into a Lloyds Bank vault — lest MI5 sully its own manicured hands. Among those recruited for the robbery is a smalltime used-car salesman, who to this point had been involved only in “the odd bit of skullduggery.” He's also the unwitting pawn of a former model (and his former girlfriend) doing penance for a heroin bust at the airport. In short order, the two put together a gang consisting of capital-C characters, rent a purse-shop storefront, tunnel under a fried-chicken eatery and drill their way through sewers and burial crypts containing corpses left over from the Great Plague of 1665 till they reach the X marking the spot.
And not only do the pics get looted and scooted out of the vault, but also a few million pounds and other goodies belonging to the Black Power baddies. It all gets pretty damned blinkered 'round the time a ham-radio operator catches the robbers' walkie-talkie chitchat, and soon enough, a secret op becomes a media sensation — till, in a matter of days, the whole thing disappears from the papers like it never happened.
Maybe it did go down like this and maybe it didn't — the actual English media have spent the better part of a year back-and-forthing over the true-or-false plot points of The Bank Job. Among the details left out in media accounts: the porn king who's paying off dirty coppers, the murder of a female MI5 agent sent to spy on Michael X in his Trinidad hideout, and the various British politicians photographed having their naughty bits whipped about by prostitutes hanging around S&M dungeons. Based on a true story? Sure, whatever you say.
More important, and about bloody time, The Bank Job is also the first proper Jason Statham movie since his days banging about in Guy Ritchie's early heists. Statham plays the used-car salesman running an odometer-tinkering scam; the model ex-girlfriend is Saffron Burrows, a good six inches taller than Statham; Michael X is Peter De Jersey, looking not a little like a beefier version of Jeffrey Wright's Jean Michel Basquiat. The rest of the cast consists of vaguely familiar British actors (hey, that's the guy from Bright Young Things!) having a laugh — good thing too, as the whole thing's such a giddy good-time mess that one could happily spend a year surveying the plot for gaping holes, never mind fact-checking its historical accuracy. Truth be told, it makes Ocean's Eleven look like a Maysles brothers documentary.
Real or not, though, The Bank Job is a real gas: Statham — reduced to muttering guttural groans in various bombs that close on opening weekend (In the Name of the King, War) or get released directly onto DVD (Chaos) or spawn inexplicable franchises (Transporter, Crank) — at last proves himself a leading man who does more than lead with his head. It isn't till the film's end that he has to throw a few punches and land a few head-butts — contractually obligated, no doubt. But by then he's managed to negotiate a screenplay in which there are complete sentences — whole paragraphs, even — that he gives his all without breaking a sweat. Even when he has to convince his missus he's a standup shit heel, Statham's totally believable. He might yet become Bruce Willis.
There's nothing earth-shattering otherwise: Imagine, if you can, Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks filtered through Ritchie's Snatch (which, right, sounds rather unpleasant) as directed by a real filmmaker — or close enough, in Roger Donaldson's case. Donaldson, after all, is capable of the very decent, like The World's Fastest Indian and No Way Out,and the very awful, as in Cocktail and The Recruit; this falls closer to the former category than the latter. Donaldson's gotta try awful hard to keep this merry mess together — it was concocted by the same screenwriting pair responsible for the garishly gruesome Across the Universe. But eventually he cuts loose and lets go, his efforts making for a Bank Job worth the loot — 10 bucks, give or take.
THE BANK JOB | Directed by ROGER DONALDSON | Written by DICK CLEMENT and IAN LA FRENAIS | Produced by STEVE CHASMAN and CHARLES ROVEN | Released by Lionsgate | Citywide