Inspector Clouseau is nowhere to be found, but there’s many a Pink Panther on the loose in “Smash and Grab,” a gripping portrait of the daring international jewel-theft ring credited with more than 150 robberies totaling more than $250 million since 1993. Deftly weaving clandestine interviews with actual Panthers, spectacular surveillance video of their handiwork, and animated dramatizations to fill in the gaps, “Afghan Star” director Havana Marking’s imaginatively made docu couldn’t have arrived in theaters at a more opportune moment, with the Panthers back in the headlines again following last month’s brazen €40 million diamond heist at the Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes. That alone should ensure “Smash and Grab” arthouse bookings beyond its current single-screen Gotham run.
Marking opens with — and later returns to — the jaw-dropping security-cam footage of the Panthers’ 2007 raid on the Graff store inside Dubai’s sprawling WAFI shopping mall, for which the thieves drove two Audi A8s straight though the mall’s glass doors, pulled up to the store and emptied it of its most valuable contents (about $4 million worth) in less than a minute. If you didn’t know it was real, the video could easily be mistaken for behind-the-scenes footage from the set of the next “Fast and Furious” or James Bond movie.
From there, “Smash and Grab” goes on the explain that the Panthers are not a single, tight-knit gang (as we’re used to seeing in the movies), but rather a sprawling global network of some 200 individuals with a clearly defined hierarchy but no single “big boss.” This highly successful strategy has allowed the Panthers to leave their pawprints on heists all the way from Europe to the Far East, nearly always staying one step ahead of the authorities. Wherever there is decadent wealth, they are sure to follow.
Much of Marking’s info comes from interviews with journalists and detectives long on the Panthers’ trail. (One investigator memorably reminds us that this work isn’t the same as it seems in the movies, though the framed poster of Michael Mann’s “Heat” on his office wall says otherwise.) But the film’s great coup comes in the testimonies of four actual gang members, who shared their stories with Marking on condition of anonymity. In turn, rather than merely blacking out faces and vocoding voices in the usual docu style, Marking has actors revoice the Panthers’ remarks, and represents her subjects onscreen as animated avatars drawn in a style that recalls Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir.” It’s a canny move that lends “Smash and Grab” an unusual variety of visual textures and reminds us that there’s always a degree of artifice and manipulation at work in even the most seemingly transparent “nonfiction” filmmaking.
Marking does an admirable job of ceding centerstage to the Panthers without letting the film turn soft or letting her subjects turn themselves into latter-day Robin Hoods. Indeed, rather than offering some kind of hackneyed justification for their actions, they talk about their lives and their work in a relaxed, casual fashion, as if they were the members of a sports team being interviewed about their championship season.
For much of its running time, the docu narrows its focus to two principal subjects: “Mike” (voiced by musician Tomislav Benzon) and “Lela” (Jasmin Topalusic), the latter of whom (now retired from the trade) speaks at length about the important role of women in the Panther organization, especially when it comes to casing potential targets, as they are less likely to arouse suspicion than their male counterparts. In the film’s most engaging stretch, she and Mike take us play-by-play through the planning and execution of a Spanish jewel theft that Mike regards as the masterpiece of his career. In an echo of the classic farce “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” they plot the job from the shop next door.
Because the Panthers are known to come primarily from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Marking also takes time out for a recounting of the Balkan wars of the 1990s — an admirable attempt to place the group in some larger sociopolitical context that nevertheless leaves the film feeling slightly overstuffed. The excerpts from a corny 1980s American TV program trumpeting Yugoslavia’s touristic riches, however, are gems.