Bank On 'Bandits'

Barry Levinson's quirky caper is rich with laughs

October 12, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Bandits is a deliciously slap-happy movie about a pair of escaped ex-cons who develop an original m.o. and acquire an even more unlikely moll.

Their m.o. is to knock on the door of a bank manager's house near the end of the day, spend the night with him or her, and walk into the bank with the whole family the next morning. The crime scene becomes manageable, the cracking of locks and codes a breeze.

Their moll (Cate Blanchett) is a dissatisfied upper-class housewife who runs her car into one of the ex-cons, right at the marital disjuncture when she's ready to chuck it all and start anew. First she connects with the dashing, headstrong Bruce Willis, then with the thoughtful, sensitive Billy Bob Thornton, and finally with both of them in a kooky and mysterious menage.

Bandits is a welcome trip back to the movie era when the audience understood that some people became outlandish criminals just because they couldn't fit into society or figure out anything else to do with their lives. It makes an unabashed appeal to our sense of fun and fantasy, and it does so in a smart and adult way. The humor keeps building until laughter explodes from every kind of character-oriented mishap.

In a movie season when romantic or comedic pairings rely to a huge extent on providence, Bandits pins the chance for happiness of the film's men and women on their ability to keep their hearts open and their minds agile.

Willis is the leader of the little band that also includes Troy Garity as a would-be stuntman and getaway driver. At one point, Willis tries to pose as a Robin Hood, albeit a self-centered one: he says they're stealing only federally insured funds that the government already has stolen from other people. But that's hardly the point of the picture; I'm not even sure we're supposed to take his statement at face value.

Bandits is about three people who are life-size except for their larger-than-life dreams. Most of the time, they find it as difficult to navigate the emotions of their improvised relationships as they find it natural to operate outside the law. But they do, with delirious success. That's where the fantasy comes in.

Harley Peyton's script gives everyone a chance to be bright and silly. Thornton has the showiest part, and he stumbles through it like a virtuoso. He's the self-styled intellectual and man of sensibility - a gourmet chef, even - and the one who comes up with the idea that turns him and Willis into "The Sleepover Bandits." He's also a brilliant hypochondriac, able to assimilate and mimic symptoms from the single hearing of a disease on his audiotape of The Merck Manual.

Thornton speaks with a modulated, gritty-languid drawl that's a bit like Hank Hill's on Fox's King of the Hill. But Thornton is apt to extend that drawl's rhythms and keep his voice lingering in the air long after he's completed his already complicated thoughts. His performance is a hilarious example of synesthesia at its finest: He moves the way he talks, with an understated loopiness. If his behavior were traced with some kind of mental wave detector, the line would oscillate all over the print-out. He's so distinctive that when he and Willis try to be "masters of disguise," much of the hilarity derives from the raggedy Thornton-ness that sneaks out from under the fancy clothes and blond and black wigs.

Willis is more restrained but just as satisfying. His character has his own off-centeredness - he studies Eastern philosophy (notably The Art of War) to justify his urge to take whatever he wants. But he knows that's what he's doing, and unlike most people, he also knows what he wants. A decade ago, Willis was a smirky actor. He's been so good for so long that when he slips into a smirk here, it's because that's how he expresses this bandit's rare moments of defensiveness.

Willis and Thornton transcend the buddy-movie cliche of opposites attract. One may be a man of thought and the other a man of action, but that means they're ornery, dissatisfied and egotistical in different ways - emotionally, they're not really opposites.

The movie doesn't completely ignite until Blanchett enters, as a woman whose despair masks an oversized exuberance struggling to spring out. Cooking in her swank kitchen, she takes equal delight in chopping and dicing the food and turning the clanking of her cookery into a silly symphony as she mouths Bonnie Tyler's rendition of "Holding Out for a Hero."

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