Retitled from the even more indistinct “Way Down” for U.S. release, Spanish heist “The Vault” stubbornly remains one of those movies you know you’ll be forgetting almost as soon as you finish watching it. There’s nothing really wrong with this glossy tale of a “mission impossible” raid on a heavily fortified Madrid bank to retrieve treasure, as slickly directed by Jaume Balaguero of the “[rec]” series. It’s just that a caper of this type needs tense set pieces, surprising twists, idiosyncratic characters or charismatic stars — ideally, all the above — to distinguish itself, and this one falls short in all those departments.
Viewers who really love this sort of thing may get caught up in the procedural aspects of the story anyway. But anyone desiring more from a heist movie than the genre’s familiar conventions professionally executed will find “The Vault” a bit empty. Saban Films is releasing the primarily English-language feature to U.S. theaters as well as digital and on demand March 26.
A short prologue introduces the notion of treasure sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1645, amid many sea battles between England’s Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada. Some 365 years later, a crew of deep-diving salvagers find that lost booty. which crusty Walter (Liam Cunningham) has spent three decades searching for. But the moment they haul it aboard ship, it’s seized by tipped-off Spanish customs agents, having been exhumed from that nation’s territorial waters. The case is brought before an international court at the Hague, which sides with Spain. Sight unseen, still locked in its centuries-old chest, the mystery loot is dispatched to Madrid.
Meanwhile 21-year-old purported engineering “boy genius” — we know he’s one because someone calls him that every five minutes — Thom (Freddie Highmore) is in Cambridge fending off post-graduation job offers from multinational corporations. He’s more intrigued by an anonymous invite that leads to Walter, who wants the wunderkind’s help breaking into “a vault in the most secure location in the world.” It is one of the film’s major credibility gaps that we’re meant to believe supposedly-brill Thom would potentially trash his own future to steal back nonspecific valuables from a government, simply because some grumpy old rich dude thinks he’s entitled to them. Yet somehow it’s an offer our hero can’t resist.
Giving the kid a wary welcome are the others on Walter’s team: many-wigged changeling Lorraine (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), surly brawn James (Sam Riley), computer whiz Klaus (Axel Stein), and equipment man Simon (Luis Tosar). They must access a heavily fortified Bank of Spain HQ in Madrid, eluding not just umpteen guards and surveillance devices but obsessively dedicated Security Chief Gustavo (Jose Coronado). One advantage: This is July 2010, so the city is a distracting chaos of sports fandom as the World Cup nears Spain’s grasp.
That last element provides a diverting, large-scale background element, but might have been better woven into the narrative throughout than Balaguero and his multiple scenarists manage. They’re much more attuned to the functional details of the “cloak and dagger nonsense,” as at one point the protagonists’ mission is a little-too-aptly described. That results in some absorbing minutiae as our heroes don various guises and utilize myriad techniques to infiltrate the Fort Knox-like facility.
Shot in sleek, handsome widescreen on plush locations by DP Daniel Aranyo, “The Vault” looks the part of a dashing international caper à la “Ocean’s” films. But despite that surface sheen, as well as the occasional soundtracked prod toward a rollicking tenor (via songs from AC/DC, Sex Pistols, etc.), somehow the fun train never quite arrives. One team member’s betrayal is amply telegraphed, capping a series of intended surprises that feel safely formulaic. The lack of real tension in either quietly time-pressed or standard action-flick situations (including precipice-dangling and near-drowning) is underlined by our dull certainty that any tight corner gotten into will inevitably be wriggled out of at the last second.
All these actors have been fine elsewhere, yet here they fail either to coalesce as an ensemble or to shine individually. Instead they give a sense of treading in the footprints of more memorable gangs-o’-rogues going all the way back to “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” Highmore is a blah protagonist, Thom’s “genius” affirmed by the contrivance of him solving some logistical problem every other scene, and his eventual romantic chemistry with Berges-Frisbey never transcends Obligatory Plot Element status. Famke Janssen has a handful of arch scenes as an old frenemy of Walter’s.
Explaining why he’d commit high crimes with a bunch of strangers, Thom shrugs “Passion, and because it was impossible” — spelling out exactly the devil-may-care, crazy-adventure spirit that “The Vault” keeps indicating without ever capturing. The film is like a luxury vehicle that somehow fails to give joy, seeming wildly hubristic at the close when it assumes we’re stoked for a sequel. (In fact, we are wondering instead why this first ride ends without even a glimpse inside the still-locked treasure chest.)
There’s all indication here that Balaguero can handle the production resources and values of an enterprise considerably more expansive than his primarily-horror-angled prior features, some co-directed with Paco Plaza. But most of those movies, felt more comfortable with their genre conventions. “The Vault” has all the external factors that heist movies require. Yet without quite being dull, somehow it misses the danger, esprit and camaraderie we need for such escapades to achieve liftoff.