Bandits (2001)

         BANDITS, the new crime comedy directed by Barry Levinson and scripted by Harley
 Peyton takes a while to find its groove, but once the characters have finally been introduced,
 it turns into a moderately enjoyable romp propelled by the performances of Bruce Willis,
 Billy Bob Thornton, Troy Garity and Cate Blanchett.

         The movie opens with an
"AMERICA'S MOST WANTED"-style show depicting the
 exploits of the so-called “Sleepover Bandits”, two bank robbers (Willis and Thornton) who hit
 on the novel idea of kidnapping a bank’s manager (and his or her family) on the evening
 before they strike. That way, they can arrive early, clean out the vault before the public arrives
 and make off with the loot. We’re told the pair died in a daring bank heist and the show
 includes snippets of a conversation the pair had with smarmy TV host Darren Head (well
 played by comedian Bobby Slayton). At first, the structure of
BANDITS is a bit
 disconcerting and confusing; Peyton deploys a style that mixes time frames as well as places,
 thus making the first section of the movie uneven and unnecessarily confusing. It doesn’t
 help that the usually reliable Levinson stages these early sequences in an unsteady manner,
 nor does the employment of various film stocks by director of photography Dante Spinotti
 (used to indicate shifts in time and place) help. Once it settles down into what is essentially
 an extended flashback, however, and the characters emerge as distinct personalities,
BANDITS becomes relatively engaging.

         Joe Blake (Willis) and Terry Collins (Thornton) are buddies serving time. Joe operates on
 instinct, using an act first, think later credo while Terry, a hypochondriac, clearly has a wide
 range of knowledge, from gourmet cooking to medicine. On impulse, Joe decides to break
 out of prison by stealing a dump truck and just driving off. Not one to be left behind, Terry
 jumps in for the ride. While the banter and bickering between these two is meant both to be
 humorous and to establish character, most of it falls flat. For its part, the audience is still
 unsure whether it is watching a comedy or a drama, and the uneven direction and tone
 derail the yeoman efforts of the Willis and Thornton.

         By the time the duo pull off their first bank heist in broad daylight, Willis and Thornton
 have relaxed into an engaging chemistry. With the addition of Joe’s cousin, Harvey
 Pollard (Garity) a wannabe stuntman and part-time getaway driver, the film begins to find
 its rhythm. Harvey is so good-natured but dumb that he’s funny even when he’s not trying
 to be.

piece de resistance, though, is the character of neurotic housewife Kate Wheeler
 (Blanchett). When first seen, she is lip-syncing to Bonnie Tyler’s "Holding Out for a Hero"
 while preparing a culinary feast for her uncaring husband (William Converse-Roberts).
 Angry at his indifference, Kate takes off in her car and has a “meet cute” with Terry; she
 literally runs him down while he’s hitchhiking, then insists on taking him to a hospital. When
 she refuses to relinquish her car, Kate ends up at the robbers’ hideout and quickly worms
 her way into their lives. For Terry and Kate, it’s dislike at first site, while Joe is immediately
 smitten. Before long, Kate is along for the ride on the robberies and she’s entrancing
 enough (and with a weird plot twist that throws she and Terry together) for both men
 to fall in love with her.

         While the plot veers all over the place and cannot decide whether its a crime caper, a
 love story or some hybrid,
BANDITS still proves more fun than it should, mostly because
 of the acting. Willis has played variations on this character in other movies and there are
 times he appears merely to be phoning it in. Thornton, on the other hand, continues
 to prove to be one of this country’s most versatile actors. He projects both intelligence
 (sometimes to the point of being a know-it-all) and insecurity, making Terry one of the
 more memorable characters in the film. The chameleonic (and about to be ubiquitous)
 Blanchett is nothing short of magnificent as Kate. Employing a perfect American accent,
 she finds the heart in the wounded soul and makes the dubious task of falling in love with
 both men palatable and believable.

         BANDITS (not to be confused with the far superior German film about female
 prisoners who form a band and then escape from jail) unfortunately squanders a good
 idea. Too serious to be a flat-out comedy, and too comic to be a crime drama, it is a case
 of some fine set pieces and terrific performances that don’t quite add up.

                                                    Rating:                        C
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.