A glib crime yarn about a quite original team of bank robbers, “Bandits” tries to have it every which way — as a clever mixed-moods suspenser, an offbeat character study and a “Jules and Jim”-like menage a trois romance — and succeeds only part-way on each front. The disparate but highly skilled leading trio of Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett keeps this road movie engaging even when it veers giddily onto the shoulder. But while director Barry Levinson is tuned into the humorous potential of the interplay among the thesps, his tendency, when in doubt, to go for slickness over depth renders the three-way love affair more of a gag than anything credible. A half-empty, half-full proposition, this MGM release will split viewer opinions but has enough going for it to be a solid mid-range grosser with adult audiences.
Willis, Thornton and Blanchett are such different-styled performers, and have such different audience constituencies, that watching them try to synch up in the service a free-wheeling escapade is something of an adventure in itself. What the characters do, and how they end up, can’t be said to be convincing on any serious level, but they invest any number of scenes with a playful spirit that combines with clever moves by scripter Harley Peyton to create breezy fun along the way.
Given that the central premise — two escaped cons working their way up to one final job that will finance their retirement south of the border — is practically as old as the heist genre itself, it is evident very early on that the main interest will stem from the variations the picture pulls on familiar ideas. And after a prologue in which Joe Blake (Willis) and Terry Collins (Thornton), “the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United States,” are shown being foiled during a Century City bank hold-up and winding up dead, the reversals on usual expectations begin in earnest.
Flashing back to the pair’s incarceration at Oregon State Prison, pic begins with what is undoubtedly the only prison break via cement truck in film history. Joe, who engineers the escape on a whim, is a hipster and gracious charmer, while Terry, whom he has dragged with him, is a Woody Allen-class hypochondriac and worrier. “May I please go back to prison?” Terry inquires, disturbed by the uncertainty their freedom imposes upon them. “Not yet,” replies Joe. Nor does Joe’s dream of a permanent Mexican siesta appeal to Terry. “I have sanitation issues,” he complains.
But it is Terry who develops the ingenious scheme that will prominently enter their names into the annals of American crime. After assessing all the challenges inherent in bank robbery, the prudent Terry proposes an idea that will eliminate most of the perils: Kidnap the bank manager the night before at his or her home and together make a “withdrawal” the next morning before office hours.
Recruiting as their getaway driver Joe’s unfocused cousin Harvey (Troy Garity), an aspiring special effects technician, the guys pull off their first job without a hitch, then go their separate ways for two weeks before reconvening. Enter Kate (Blanchett), a wealthy redhead who’s a prisoner in a dead-end marriage. Frazzled from boredom, Kate commandeers Terry from the moment they meet, drives him to his remote rendezvous with Joe and Harvey and realizes they are the already famous “Sleepover Bandits” (which would have been a more evocative, less generic title for the film). After a little “It Happened One Night” homage involving a blanket separating their cabin beds, Kate and Joe connect over corny song lyrics and fall in each other’s arms.
After more successful heists as they move south, circumstances throw Kate together with Terry; in a dubious development that just barely gets by, their bonding over mutual phobias sexualizes their relationship, which leaves them with some explaining to do to Joe.
With Kate unable to choose between the two men (“Together you’re the perfect man,” she concludes), the team heads on to L.A. for their intended final haul. Although its bloody climax has been known from the beginning, there is also much that has not yet been told, and pic’s crafty, happy-go-lucky tone manages to reassert itself even here.
Peyton, who previously worked offbeat twists into similar genre fare in the little-seen “Keys to Tulsa,” does more of the same here while also providing snappy dialogue that only occasionally becomes gummed up with too much shtick. Levinson over-indulges the tired conceit of the media’s penchant for manufacturing outlaw celebs, but he serves the comic elements and his leading actors well. Thornton and Blanchett, in particular, provide original and unusual performances, he as a prim, unassertive fellow accustomed to the short end of the stick, she as a high-strung neurotic who “picked the wrong life.”
Willis is best early-on, where his laid-back charm and confidence well suit his devil-may-care criminal leadership role. But the film’s persistent artificiality cheats his character as events and emotions become more serious, and what could have been interesting vulnerabilities and multiple layers in the man go ignored. Garity’s fourth banana role is amorphous and vaguely annoying.
Setting the action in small Pacific coastal towns both adds freshness and quietly recalls many similar crime pictures of the ’40s and ’50s. Production package is very accomplished and slick.