It’s become a highly reliable cliché to open a thriller with a bank robbery in which the robbers wear really creepy masks — a gambit that kicked into high gear 25 years ago with “Point Break.” But let’s at least give “Marauders” some credit: The masks in this movie up the creep factor to a whole new level. They’re thick dark armor adorned with sketchy skulls that look as if they might have been drawn by Jean-Michel Basquiat. (If you were standing in a bank and someone showed up wearing this, you’d be scared.) The underworld fashion statement is matched, in this case, by a 21st-century criminal efficiency, with a smartphone’s computerized she-voice calmly explaining to everyone that if the police get called within 15 minutes, a bomb will go off. The hook of this sort of opener is that it gets you to look at those masks and think: The people hidden under there must be awesomely monstrous. But considering that “Marauders” turns out to be a muddled “political” crime thriller, the revelation of their identities comes to seem almost terrifying in its banality.
A more grounded form of menace arrives early on, when Bruce Willis shows up as Hubert, the president of a Cincinnati bank, who likes to ruminate on such matters as the spider crawling outside his window. In the right role, Willis can, of course, be a fine and forceful actor, and the makers of “Marauders” no doubt decided that his middle-aged hard-ass squint could play as a dry display of power. But it’s the wrong kind of power. Willis is too relaxed and casual, too laissez faire an actor to be convincing as a rigorously controlled (and controlling) financial manager. Hubert always seems disgruntled, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s because his bank branches are getting knocked off, or because he’s secretly behind the robberies and they aren’t going as planned, or because Bruce Willis is simply getting huffy at having to emote too much. From the start, he makes “Marauders” feel like the cooked-up concoction it is.
For about 45 minutes, director Steven C. Miller gets some entertainingly brusque exchanges going among the actors playing law enforcers. Christopher Meloni, who after a dozen or so years on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” is a maestro at taking small compact encounters and charging them with tension, plays Montgomery, an FBI agent who’s been called in to investigate the robberies. Meloni, exuding his refined brand of ballbusting, makes Montgomery an essentially decent guy who pushes people around with his brains. Chief among his antagonists is a local cop (Johnathon Schaech) who seems up to his ears in corruption (their every encounter is a mini turf war). And then there’s Wells, an FBI rookie played by Adrian Grenier with a boyish haircut and a severe expression that says to the audience, “Please forget all about Vincent Chase.” At first, you may think that Grenier looks just about as lost as…well, Vincent Chase in a mediocre genre film. But he gives a tightly wired performance, even when he has to do things we just can’t buy.
It used to be that low-budget crime thrillers had a low-grade appeal. Now they all have to have cred. The script of “Marauders” is complicated enough to make you think that the screenwriters, Michael Cody and Chris Sivertson, thought that they were remaking “Chinatown.” They weave together plot strands as if they were knitting a film-noir lanyard. Years before, Hubert’s brother was kidnapped; also years before, Montgomery’s wife and fellow agent was tortured to death during a sting operation. (That’s why he orders a ritual glass of red wine at their favorite bar and just sits there, not drinking it.) Hubert is involved in some sort of shady business to do with his banks — maybe the robberies, maybe blackmail (since he has access to his wealthy clients’ safety-deposit boxes). The robbers themselves are master terrorists who know how to sneak right onto your computer screen. But you see, there was also this platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, involved in a deadly incident, and as the film begins to piece together who each of those soldiers was…
Well, as that happens, something strange occurs: The pieces all fall into place, and the movie starts to make even less sense than it did before. You simply can’t hold this particular conspiracy in your head, because it’s all been plotted out on paper, but it doesn’t hold water in the real world. And so it mocks the very seriousness with which “Marauders,” in its destined-for-VOD way, is made.
What does hold water is the movie’s cinematography. It would have to, since almost every scene is drenched in rain, a form of atmosphere that quickly becomes oppressive, because of how thoroughly it merges with the film’s overall glossy look of blue-grey televisual gloom. “Marauders” is a semi-oddity, an overly ambitious potboiler. You can respect the impulses of the people who made it and still feel as if it came out of a box that read “Just add water.”