A gang of cockney boys attempt to rob a bank, little realizing they’ve been set up by Her Majesty’s spymasters, in “The Bank Job,” an engrossing if underwhelming period thriller. Helmed by Roger Donaldson (“The World’s Fastest Indian”) and written by august scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who penned the classic ’70s Brit sitcom “Porridge”), pic feels downright old-fashioned — not in an arch-pastiche way, but not really in a good way, either. Opening wide in Blighty on Feb. 28, and Stateside a week later, “Job” could bank coin from male demos if marketing gets it right.
Plot is loosely based on the so-called “walkie-talkie bank job” of 1971, during which a ham-radio operator picked up the two-way communication between a lookout and some burglars who had tunneled into Lloyd’s Bank on Baker Street in Central London.
From this historical kernel, the script spins a reasonably complex and not implausible work of sheer fiction. Here, the impetus to rob the bank comes not from the burglars themselves, but from MI5 or MI6 (it’s a running joke that no one understands the difference), who are under pressure to recover incriminating photographs locked in the safe-deposit box of a “royal princess” (maybe Princess Margaret, who allegedly had a naughty sexual history). The photos were taken by one Michael X (Peter De Jersey), a real-life Trinidadian gangster-cum-Black Power leader who was eventually hanged for murder in Trinidad.
Supercilious spy Tim (Richard Lintern) thus promises to get his lover Martine (Saffron Burrows) out of trouble from a drug bust if she puts together a gang to rob the bank — they can even keep the loot as long as they hand over the saucy snaps. An East End girl made good, Martine goes back to her old stomping grounds to recruit shady used-car salesman Terry Leather (Jason Statham, a Brit gangster-pic regular willingly typecast once again), along with their old mates, photographer Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and part-time actor Dave (Daniel Mays).
Just to complicate things further, one of the safe-deposit boxes has a ledger recording all the bribes paid to corrupt cops by Lew Vogel (David Suchet, dressed in wig and glasses so as to resemble the late, beloved British comedian Ronnie Barker). After the job is pulled off successfully, despite the attempted intervention of the police, Vogel goes on the war path to track down the gang, proving himself a more ruthless foe than either the spies or the cops.
Helmer Donaldson, a clean pair of hands but no master craftsman judging by his previous output, efficiently keeps all the script’s potentially slippery balls in the air, averting outright disaster in what could have been a tortuously confusing story. Without overdoing it, pic (shot in the U.K., with some location work in Australia) evokes the politically precarious atmosphere of the time, when sex scandals had far more impact and radical-chic politics made for some strange bedfellows, for instance Black Power leaders and conservative MPs’ daughters (Hattie Morahan plays one of the latter in a vivid supporting turn).
However, the filmmaking lacks flair and looks as though it were done a bit on the cheap. Period details in production design and costumes are accurate-looking, but in a low-key way. Tight shots of locations used, mixed with studio-shot footage, seem to be just barely keeping contempo details out of frame (a sign at Paddington Station uses 1990s fonts). Lensing on HD, Michael Coulter opts for a dark, grungy palette that suits the period but makes only a nominal effort to mimic the cantered angles and zoom shots one associates with ’60s and ’70s British films (such as “Get Carter”).
Instead of a soundtrack of hits from the period, J. Peter Robinson’s monotonous score sounds like off-the-shelf thriller music, all kettle drums and droning synths. Dialogue, likewise, often sounds as though it were bought by the yard. Thesping is generally OK, but no better.
Reportedly a long time in development, pic went through a couple title changes (including “Baker Street” and “D-Notice”). Following a long line of British gangster pics, “The Bank Job” suffers by being neither fish nor fowl: It’s not a flashy, youth-skewing, violence-soaked slice of cool in the style of Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels”) or Nick Love (“The Business”), but it’s also not quite clever enough to appeal to an arthouse crowd as “Sexy Beast” did.
Nevertheless, in the U.K., pic could benefit from weak competition in its opening week and the lockout of “Rambo” in the Odeon multiplex chain.