“We’re not thieves,” insists the ringleader of a heist in “Heroic Losers,” a South American crowd-pleaser about a rural collective seeking justice against big-city banking elites. He may be wrong in the most literal sense, but like an Argentinean Danny Ocean, he’s assembled a group of amateurs who have no intention of filling their coffers with ill-gotten gains — they just want their money back. Adding to a tradition of modest heist comedies like “Going in Style” and “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” director Sebastian Borensztein has turned Argentina’s devastating early-2000s financial crisis into the sort of generous, cathartic entertainment that his characters might enjoy. That populist touch has put it on track to be the year’s biggest box-office hit in its home country, and other territories will surely pounce after its international premiere in Toronto.
Anchoring this motley ensemble is Ricardo Darín, the durable star of Borensztein’s previous two films, “Chinese Take-Out” and “Kóblic,” though international audiences will likely remember him from “Nine Queens,” which also placed him at the center of a con. Darín’s quiet self-assurance — if this were “Ocean’s 11,” he’d definitely be the George Clooney of the bunch — sells this unlikely scheme to both the lawful, working-class types he leads into trouble and the audience, which might need some convincing, too. He got them into this mess, after all, and he’s the one responsible for getting them out of it.
Set in August 2001, right before Argentina’s Great Depression was about to plunge to its deepest ebb, “Heroic Losers” begins with a dream engineered by Fermín (Darín), a retired soccer hero, who wants to bring prosperity to his struggling hometown in the Buenos Aires province. He and his wife (Verónica Llinás) have the vision to convert a long-abandoned factory into a granary that could employ 50 people or more, but they lack the capital to do it. To secure a bank loan, they pool small cash investments from various down-on-their-luck friends — some unemployed, others scraping by on low-paying jobs or government subsidies — who want to go into business together.
Fermín succeeds in getting the money he needs, but an unscrupulous banker talks him into opening up an account rather than tucking it away in a safe deposit box, knowing full well that the banks are about to put a freeze on withdrawals. Before that happens, a slick lawyer named Manzi (Andrés Parra) makes a run on the bank and stores that cash (and much more) in a heavily secured underground bank vault in the sticks. When Fermín and company learn of its whereabouts, they make plans to raid the vault, which is secured by a multi-tiered alarm system that they’ll need luck, savvy and a little dynamite to get past.
At close to a full two hours, “Heroic Losers” takes too much time in the wind-up without the emotional payoffs Borensztein labors so hard to get. A personal tragedy that follows the banking scam is intended to bolster Fermín’s triumph-of-the-underdog bonafides, but it adds only empty sentimentality. Worse still is a corny romantic-comedy subplot involving Fermín’s son (played by Darín’s real-life son, Chino), who haplessly pretends to be a gardener to get close to Manzi, but instead falls for his pretty assistant. The rest of the team surrounding Fermín is a ragtag group of old friends and lovable misfits, all there to offer emotional support or mild comic relief.
The film improves, however, when the gang comes together for a robbery inspired by the Peter O’Toole/Audrey Hepburn team-up “How to Steal a Million,” which turns the heist into a cat-and-mouse game that adds a note of comical exasperation to Manzi’s comeuppance. But what really gives “Heroic Losers” a boost is its expression of national character, the way it attaches itself to this rousing fantasy to score one for the downtrodden. The novelist Eduardo Sacheri, who co-scripted with Borensztein, also wrote the source material for “The Secret in Their Eyes,” another international hit starring Darín. They both have a sense of Argentina as a country that serves the powerful, rife with dark secrets and conspiracies. “Heroic Losers” takes sweet revenge, if only for a moment.