Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

The most successful actor in film history is the late John Cazale. He made five full-length motion pictures, every one of which is a film classic: the first two Godfather films, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter and Dog-Day Afternoon. The last of these finds Cazale, best known for his role as sad sack mobster Fredo Corleone, playing a bank robber opposite, of all people, Al Pacino. Based on a true story of a bank job gone wrong – the cops quickly surround the bank, but there are hostages & Pacino’s character turns out to be a natural with the crowd that soon gathers – Sidney Lumet’s best movie¹ plays not just with any memory we might have of the event itself on the evening news, but with our expectations of film genres as it gradually becomes clear why Pacino is robbing a bank – to pay for his lover’s sex change operation.

I thought of Dog-Day Afternoon last night as I was watching The Bank Job, which, although it is also about the robbery of a bank with unintended consequences, is a very different movie than Afternoon in all respects but one – just how much it plays with the audience’s sense of expectation. The Bank Job claims to be the account of an actual event – there’s not a lot of documentation for this, tho that may be because of official British secrecy – in which a local group of petty thieves are persuaded to dig into a bank vault that just happens to contain compromising photographs of the late Princess Margaret. Safety deposit boxes being what they are, there are a lot of other incriminating things to be had along with several million dollars in currency, jewelry & trinkets. Soon, everyone who has something to lose is searching for Our Gang.

What The Bank Job really asks is what would a franchise like Oceans 11, 12, 13 look like if, in actuality, their elaborate heists were in any way real. The answer is that not everybody lives to tell the tale. As presented in this deliberately unwieldy plot, the initiators are not just concerned with protecting the Princess’ reputation, but with the fact that Michael X, a black power advocate – in reality a pimp & drug dealer – has them & thus is beyond the reach of the law. But a local madam also keeps her photos of customers – including MPs & other government officials – in a box, and the local porn merchant keeps his books there with records of which cops are being paid off, how much, & by whom. The MPs & the cops – both the ones on the take & a certain officer Givens who is not – also have an interest in this project. As does even the undercover agent who has slept her way into the black power advocate’s entourage.

The first half of the film is very much a poor man’s Oceans XX, as Terry, played effectively by Jason Statham, a good character actor with looks that are just borderline leading man (imagine a younger & serious Bruce Willis), scrambles to put together a team after having been recruited by Martine Love (Saffron Burrows, whom Boston Legal fans will recognize as Lorraine Wellers), an old flame who, unbeknownst to him, has been busted for trying to ferret drugs in from Morroco. Two of Terry’s team come from his own garage, which specializes in the resale of stolen vehicles. To these are added a front man – they have to rent a nearby shop in order to have somewhere to dig from – in the person of a con artist turned men’s clothing salesman – and someone who knows about digging tunnels, a local Cypriot immigrant. Finally, when they get ready to dig, they decide they need somebody as a lookout & turn again to Terry’s garage, picking up the junior mechanic who has just married the bookkeeper. His job is to stay on top of a nearby building with a walkie talkie and keep them apprised of anything going on outside the bank.

Needless to say, much goes on, even tho the bank is closed all weekend. Not the least is a local ham radio operator who overhears the walkie talkie and soon has the cops in his bedroom listening in, trying to figure out just which bank is being targeted. I’m not going to recount what happens next here – the Wikipedia plot summary is over 1250 words long, and needs every one of them. I’m more interested here in two things. One is the narrative structure of undercutting genre expectations. The other is the role of truth claims in an otherwise genre flick.

Obviously the two questions are related. Director Roger Donaldson (Species, Dante’s Peak, The Recruit) and writers Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe) flood the latter half of the film with so many threads of “X is out to get Y” that it is all but impossible to tell who, for example, suffocates the Cypriot or stabs the Colonel, loose ends that are never fully resolved. In the end, all of the “really bad” guys are dealt with, but one of the mates from the garage is dead as well as the undercover agent in the Caribbean. All of this would work more effectively if – and really only if – we had more of a sense of the gang as individuals, but Clement & La Frenais’ script here – and the film’s pacing is often right out of their work on the ersatz Beatles’ movie as well – is too hurried to spend time on non-plot-driven moments like character. In an odd way, even as they’re blowing up their genre, it’s taking the ultimate revenge on their movie.

The awkwardness & loose ends are, of course, justified by the claim that all of this is “real,” a claim predicated on the assertion that the writers got the story from one or more of the parties involved. Some of the details here – Michael X’s behavior, for example, including the murder of Gale Anne Benson – are matters of public record. Others, including Princess Margaret’s sexual behavior, are matters so widely rumored (e.g. her relationships with Peter Sellers or Mick Jagger, with members of her own sex, or with a gardener 17 years younger than herself) that they might as well be public record. But this is documentation much in the same way as we get in a film like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which we learn that TV game show entrepreneur Chuck Barris (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show, Treasure Hunt) spent his off hours as a CIA hit man. You can prove that Chuck Barris exists, that he had these shows, even that he wrote the Freddy Cannon hit “Palisades Park.” But that doesn’t mean you can prove anything about a career in intelligence, let alone 33 assassinations.

Not unlike the robbery in The Bank Job, the film itself almost works. The raggedness at the end of the film is far more “real” than the neat summing up one might expect from an Oceans caper flick, but the trip to & through this moment just isn’t done quite as effectively as it needs to be. If, after all, this is all “true,” why does Terry’s relationship with Martine feel like such a studio stereotype? Keeley Hawes as Terry’s wife has a great, if small, part – her reaction to the whole plot, right up to the final scene, is one driven by a sense of what risk Terry has put her family in. If only every role had been governed with that same sense of necessity.

 

¹ From a career that includes The Pawnbroker, Network, Serpico, Fail-Safe, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead & many of the great early television dramas.

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