Friday, March 7, 2008

Robbing banks and pillaging the past

Summary: "The Bank Job" may not steal the weekend's number one spot at the box office, but it allows director Roger Donaldson to do a workman like job with a story about a robbery that rocked England. The movie has the extra kick of being based -- if loosely -- on a true story.

We've seen so many tasty little British heist movies that the prospect of another may prompt yawning even among genre aficionados. Despite its air of cockney familiarity, "The Bank Job" -- the story of a renowned 1971 British bank robbery -- has enough novel twists to keep it on track. This little movie tackles some big themes, and although it lacks a mega-payoff, its perfectly pitched performances and carload of sleazy characters lead to the kind of satisfactions that accrue from watching competently made films.

Competent, yes. But it's the movie's cynical reading of British society lifts it from the caper realm. Without getting pushy about it, "The Bank Job" asks us to decide which form of rot we prefer -- that which permeates the upper or lower portion of society's crust. I don't know enough about recent British scandal to tell you precisely when fiction waves goodbye to fact, but I do know that "The Bank Job" can be entertaining.

Jason Statham -- recognizable to action fans from the "Transporter" series -- plays principal robber Terry. Early on, Terry's contacted by a beautiful young woman (Saffron Burrows) with whom he once had an affair. He's suspicious, but signs on to tunnel under Lloyd's Bank on Baker Street. A car dealer who's not exactly thriving, Terry -- like so many before him -- lusts after a big, liberating score. He tells his fretting wife he'll be gone for a bit, and gathers a group of neighborhood pals to complete the job. The gang -- such as it is -- has no idea that they're being used by higher ups in the British government.

Linking the gang and the British establishment allows Donaldson to steer the movie into sleazy, tabloid territory where the characters are squeezed and manipulated. Burrows' Martine, for example, cuts a deal to extricate herself from legal difficulties involving a drug bust. That's why she approaches Terry in the first place.

The British spies who use Martine point the robbers at a vault that houses safety deposit boxes, and the movie suggests that those who have such boxes use them to store all manner of incriminating or embarrassing evidence. This includes compromising photographs taken of a hard-partying Princess Margaret. But consider, too, Lew Vogel (David Suchet), a porn king who keeps a record of the cops he's paid off in his safe deposit box. There's also Michael X (Peter De Jersey), a black activist with criminal ambitions that extend into drugs. The script neatly contrives to have a variety of self-interested parties -- from spies to gangsters -- looking for the robbers, who more interested in money than in the controversial items that have been stashed at the bank.

Donaldson, whose fortunes sagged with the Anthony Hopkins picture "The World's Fastest Indian," doesn't try anything fancy, but he keeps the story percolating, and he pushes a bit beyond the suspense ploys we expect to find in heist movies. The resultant effort may not always be a white-knuckle affair, but it's got plenty of grit and an appropriately jaded view of a society in which the rot can be either royal or common.


"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" offers an entirely different view of British society. Based on a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, the movie revolves around the relationship between a glamorous American singer (Amy Adams) and her emotionally stifled personal secretary (Francis McDormand). Adams' Delysia Lafosse -- as chirpy as a canary and twice as flighty -- has a complicated sex life. She's being supported by Nick (Mark Strong), a gangster who runs a nightclub. She's also being courted by a Phil (Tom Payne), who promises to use his theatrical connections to land her a role. Delysia's piano player (Lee Pace) also wants to steal her heart. What's a girl to do? How about trying to keep all three men guessing?

Meanwhile, McDormand's Miss Pettigrew battles her alcoholism, brings order to Delysia's disheveled life and catches the eye of a disillusioned fashion designer (Ciaran Hinds), who happens to be engaged but who seems fed up with the artificiality of the world he inhabits.

Director Bharat Nalluri creates a polished, deco version of '30s London, and the whole movie feels like a throwback to a dreamy time that laced screwball comedy with sophisticated banter, but this artificially sweetened concoction never quite brings us to the point where we can believe in its overdressed characters, its overdone decors or its overstated theatricality.

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