Monday, March 24, 2008
I love heist movies. They all follow a basic template, yet can go in any number of directions. They can be comedies, actioners, thrillers, or a combo meal. They often provide good parts for male and female leads (unless you're David Mamet's wife), as well as colorful supporting roles for aspiring character actors. The villains and/or "vault" (to use the term generally) can offer all sorts of entertaining obstacles, and the gang can be either clever enough to inspire our admiration, or a bunch of clodhoppers that make us laugh. It's a damn near full-proof genre; you'd have to be a complete nutter (or David Mamet) to screw it up.
Roger Donaldson's no nutter. He's been making generally good movies for over 20 years now, in a manner that makes me want to recant my half-hearted praise for James Mangold as an efficient journeyman director. At his best, Donaldson's work is exciting where Mangold's is merely competent, streamlined instead of bloated, kinky over bland. Exciting, streamlined and kinky are all good adjectives to describe The Bank Job, Donaldson's true-story heist picture about a motley band of thieves hired by some shadowy British officials to rob a London bank in 1971. Items incriminating to the Crown are -- unbeknownst to the crew, led by Terry Leather (Jason Statham), who are merely after cash -- stuffed in one of the safety deposit boxes, along with certain other unmentionables that acquire attention from a whole gallery of unsavory characters.
The heist itself -- which includes tunneling underground, ordering take-out, and taking a nap -- is over rather quickly. The second hour of The Bank Job is devoted to the police force, the British government, the secret service, and various representatives from the drug and porno industries in pursuit of the robbers. As the nooses tighten around their necks, Terry desperately starts pulling back, resulting in a climax that isn't entirely convincing but, after watching Chigurh hobble away and Plainview bludgeon Eli with a bowling pin in other films, made this one feel like a tonic. As with his expert 1987 Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out, Donaldson is in his element here, and he has the perfect lead in Statham, a charismatic actor who doesn't seem to care whether we like him or not -- thus I like him all the more.
Whereas The Bank Job focuses on the whys, the wherefores, and the how-the-hell-do-we-get-out-of-heres of a heist gone wrong, Scott Frank's The Lookout (now on DVD) is a heist movie in the form of a character study. It stars Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as Chris Pratt, a twentysomething janitor at a Kansas City bank who suffers brain damage as the result of a car accident from a few years back. As Chris tries to put his life back together, he is befriended by a young tough named Gary (Matthew Goode), whose gang not incidentally intends to rob Chris's employer.
There is much to admire about The Lookout: a good structure; crackling dialogue; some interesting characters and situations that don't go the way you expect. (I particularly liked Sergio Di Zio's Deputy Ted, a gentle police officer who watches over Chris's night shift, and whose climactic scene turns a cliche on its ear before finally acquiescing to it.) Yet I must admit I expected better things from Scott Frank, one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood making his directorial debut. His movie lacks momentum from one scene to the next, as does Gordon-Leavitt's performance, which veers between idiot and savant without ever fully connecting the two. In the critical role of Gary, Goode has everything but charisma. It would have been better to have Gary actually like Chris, to add something complicated to the mix. Despite its best intentions, nothing really feels emotionally at stake, and that makes The Lookout unsatisfying.