Bandits (2001)

D: Barry Levinson
S: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton

The caper movie revival continues with Barry Levinson's Bandits, a lively if occasionally overstretched yarn which attempts, like the recent Swordfish, to enliven the familiar formula with stylistic and narrative complication by melding it with the classic screwball comedy. Whereas Swordfish abandoned its pretensions after its opening scene and became exactly what it sought to satirise however, Bandits keeps pushing. It manages to stay just enough left of centre to remain interesting even if the basic components are extremely familiar.

Two convicts on the run following a prison escape become opportunistic celebrity thieves. One (Bruce Willis) is a decisive, impulsive, and strong type. The other (Billy Bob Thornton) is an emotionally and physically sensitive hypochondriac who is also initially a reluctant accessory. The duo come up with an unusual scheme for robbing banks which involves kidnapping the managers and waiting until morning to get them to open the safes. This up close and personal style brings them into more human contact with their victims. It also allows for situation comedy. The result is a series of anecdotal and picaresque encounters with various eccentrics, not least of which is a frustrated housewife (Cate Blanchett) who chances into their path and becomes entangled with both. As in any screwball farce, this anarchic female turns their already relatively topsy-turvy world even further upside down. Arguably the film didn't need it, but the romantic triangle which develops makes things even more odd, partly because of its refusal to offer an obvious resolution.

The film draws considerable kudos from its cast. Willis (Unbreakable) still has the ability to fill a movie screen with a wry grin or a sidelong glance when he wants to. Though he has deepened his tone in the past twenty years, he can still carry a lightweight characterisation when he has to. The character he plays here requires him to blend the streetwise smartass persona of his early years with the more reflective style he has used more of late. It works on the whole, and he manages to get through some of the more obvious bits of business with enough dignity to hold the centre. There is a sense that the character is something of an answer to George Clooney's in Out of Sight though, and the film on the whole doesn't have the textural blend to make use of its dips and arcs.

Thornton (A Simple Plan) continues to astound in his ability to play a wide range of characters in a convincing manner. It is odd to think that you should have to remark on such a thing given that is what actors do, but he stands out among recent performers for his chameleon-like adroitness. The character he plays here is again little more than a cliché, but there is enough weirdness in the script for the actor to work with. His hypochondria takes forms so extreme as to induce paralysis at one point: a potentially disastrous scene which Thornton manages to play without resorting to Farrelly Brothers-level grotesquerie. He also manages to be sympathetic and believable enough amid the jittery excess.

Blanchett (The Gift) plays along under the 'quirky' banner here. She invests her 'wacky' character with enough frustration and indecision to make her human. This keeps the story anchored in relatively understandable emotions in spite of all the screwball plotting and characterisation in the script. Again, it is still little more than a variant on what we've seen before, but that shouldn't stop us from enjoying it.

There are touches of Bonnie and Clyde and Jules et Jim in here, at least superficially, and the film has a breezy, impressionistic style characteristic of its director which makes it distinct from standard genre entries. This carries it a long way, but it does not take much before the audience is forced to wonder just why they are watching at all. It is funny, but not especially so. It has some dramatic elements, but they are neither surprising nor particularly deep. It spins a pretty good yarn, but it tends to stroll along without any real urgency and for no very good reason. It has enough little quirks to make you remember it if you are in the mood to enjoy it in the first place, but it is not a film that will rise very high in personal favourite lists when pitted against anything that it draws upon or is derived from.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.