Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Bandits (2001)

TWO'S COMPANY, THREE'S A CRIME

Today, we reach a milestone… the 100th review on this poky little blog, so let’s get on with it. Yesterday, we looked at Bande à part, a story about two young wannabe criminals who coerce a girl they know into assisting them in robbing the house where she lives, with the situation becoming complicated when both guys try to woo the girl. Today, we’re looking at Bandits, a story about two career criminals who wind up taking a strange woman along on bank robberies, with the situation becoming complicated when both guys try to woo the girl… it’s a funny old world we live in, isn’t it?

Two escaped convicts, the charismatic Joe (Bruce Willis) and the hypochondriac Terry (Billy Bob Thornton), begin a bank robbing spree under the plan of kidnapping bank managers the night before, then going with the managers in the morning to rob the banks. When a getaway goes wrong, they wind up bringing a bored housewife, Kate (Cate Blanchett), along with them, which only complicates things further when an awkward romantic triangle develops between them.

Of course, I’m not actually suggesting that Bandits is some sort of remake of Bande à part. The original conception of the project was actually to adapt the novel Bandits by Elmore Leonard, to which Bruce Willis owns the film rights. However, it was apparently deemed that it was too weak a story to adapt, so they simply kept the title and brought in a new writer to come up with a completely new concept. The writer they brought in was Harley Peyton, known best for working on Twin Peaks in the early 90s, with the bulk of season two coming from him. His other work was sporadic after the end of that show, and Bandits was his first film of the 00s. There may have been some degree of influence going on with Bande à part, but perhaps it’s just sheer coincidence that I happened to see both of these films one after the other, thereby making it seem way more relevant than it actually is. Certainly, it’s no stretch of a writer’s imagination to have a story of two thieves whose work gets compromised when a third party comes between them.

As it is, Bandits is a relatively clever script, although it actually does have just as many downfalls. The characters are pretty well drawn, distinctive and fairly memorable. Joe is the doer of the team, possessed of confidence, charisma and a willingness to get the job done, although he’s also got a bit of a problem with anger management. Terry is the thinker, a very smart guy, but often crippled (sometimes literally) by an array of insecurities, allergies, fears and neuroses. Of the two, Terry is the better character, primarily because he has more potential for comedy and drama, given that he’s more prone to bouts of mild hysteria and panic than his cooler partner. Joe can still fly off the handle, but it never comes at a time that would cause untoward conflict. The character of Kate is somewhere between the two, a woman of great spirit and passion, though it’s buried under so much domesticated unhappiness and boredom. When she runs into the criminal pair (well, one of them, anyway), she rather quickly jumps on the opportunity for some excitement and thrills in her life. The reasons for her domestic hell is obvious when we see a news broadcast featuring her husband. With everyone believing she has been kidnapped, his plea to get her back includes the point, “I’m going to Spain next week, so if your kidnappers would like to contact me, they can get in touch with my people, and you know who they are.” Classy guy. Like I said, these characters are pretty good and all have decent motivations behind them.

There are a handful of other characters to proceedings, of varying degrees of importance, although they are more hit-and-miss in the overall picture. Joe and Terry’s lookout/getaway driver is Harvey, Joe’s cousin. Harvey is a stuntman with a penchant for pyro work. He’s also an idiot. Honestly, Harvey is one of the ‘miss’ characters mainly because of that last point, since he does stupid things that are a bit infuriating, like leaving the getaway vehicle because he sees a girl he likes, though I’ll get to this in a bit. On the other side, one of the ‘hit’ characters would be Mildred, a bank manager who is genuinely thrilled to meet the famous bank-robbing duo, but refuses to go along with their plans because she can’t take them seriously. She tells Joe that everyone knows that he wouldn’t hurt anyone, so she isn’t that frightened. A point on this, though, since we have seen that Joe has anger management issues, you’d expect more of a reaction than a frustrated sigh.

As to the actual story of the film, it’s got an interesting central premise around which to build some good stuff. The romantic triangle dynamic can yield some fine conflict on its own, but that it’s set within the context of a series of bank-jobs does give it an extra boost. What does create something of an imbalance is that there’s never a definite tone struck in the picture, which makes things feel a bit uneasier than they should, though this is as much the fault of director Barry Levinson as it is Peyton. Levinson has normally shown himself to be quite adept at nimbly juggling tonal shifts without problem, but there’s the odd fumble here and there. And I swear, the first time Terry and Kate spend time together being intercut with Joe taking his frustrations out on a makeshift punch bag is similar to something done in Double Impact, a Jean-Claude Van Damme film from ten years prior.

This is where Harvey’s own romantic subplot could have had the most direct effect. With the primary love triangle, the problem in tone comes from what seems to be the indecision of the filmmakers as to whether or not it’s mainly comedic or mainly dramatic. The amount of time spent on it would suggest the latter, but the lack of real engagement would suggest the former. If they wanted to make it more comedic, they could have easily cut back on the three leads and given a bit more time to Harvey’s time spent chasing a blonde hitchhiker in pink boots. Like I said, this is in need of further development if we’re to believe in it more. As it is, there’s a couple of moments (not scenes, moments) where Harvey doesn’t pick the girl up, then eventually one where he does, and then suddenly they’re living together as a couple… wait, what? That’s a lot of off-screen relationship building for us not to be in on it. That this relationship does have some importance in the final 20 minutes or so just puts more strain on the already thin link. With just a bit more time spent here, the relationship between Harvey and the pink boots girl would feel more authentic, and put less weight on the leading trio to cover all generic bases.

You’d maybe think that this all amounts to a pretty lacklustre film, with good moments and bad fighting each other for supremacy. As it is, the film is more enjoyable than not mainly because of the fine performances given throughout. Bruce Willis still has a great line in wry smirks and easy charm, coupled with a solid physical presence, so Joe is ably handled. Billy Bob Thornton is on great form as Terry, showing off an array of tics, twitches and fast-talking that makes his feeling of simmering panic ever so slightly infectious. Cate Blanchett goes for Kate with a great abandon, offering bad dancing and singing without a hint of shame because it’s finally about her character being free to do so. And, as much the character can occasionally annoy, Troy Garity does give Harvey some kind of humour, which he needs so as not to be completely off-putting. That all of the performances are strong and that the characters are (for the most part) likable goes a long way to raising the game of the whole film. It doesn’t solve all of the problems, but it makes much more enjoyable.

Bandits is a bit messy when it comes to finding the right overall tone to the picture, and the script has its share of drawbacks, like a secondary romantic subplot that’s so underdeveloped it could qualify as a sub-sub-subplot. That said, there is enough fun there to keep it entertaining, it is pretty brisk for a two-hour film and the central performances are thoroughly enjoyable, especially in Billy Bob Thornton. It certainly could have been much better, but it’s far from a complete disaster.

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