The Bank Job

“The Bank Job” is one of the most generic film titles I’ve ever heard, and for a while it looks like the movie is going to live up to that standard of ordinariness with a well-worn story about a crew of London bank thieves. But then a trove of unforeseen details bursts open, and suddenly the story is filled with new dimensions that separate it from a run-of-the-mill heist flick.

Tweaking a genre as familiar as this one is not easy, and venerable Brit screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais got a helping hand from history: allegedly, the basic details of this story are true (though they were “classified” by the British government for so long that you can’t find much substantiation for them). It is 1971, and a militant criminal named Michael X (Peter De Jersey), named after his idol Malcolm, has thus far avoided prosecution because he possesses photos of a member of the royal family in an extremely compromising situation. The obvious solution? Get a hold of those photos and remove Michael X’s leverage.

That’s where the heist comes in. Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a semi-reformed criminal who’s now a car dealer and family man but who still never looks like he’s more than a few minutes away from kicking your arse, is contacted by Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), an old associate who in turn has been contacted by a government operative named Everett (Richard Lintern). Everett’s people want Martine to rob the bank where Michael X’s safety deposit box is stored, hand the photos over, and keep whatever else they steal. The government has no official involvement, and presumably the criminals will happily fend for themselves with their newfound riches.

Terry rounds up a crew of the usual suspects (all dodgy, colorful blokes), and they go to work in the normal fashion: renting the empty storefront two doors down, digging a tunnel underneath it leading to the bank, etc. You know the routine. You’ve seen these movies before. You could do it in your sleep.

The fun part comes when you realize the robbery is well underway and the movie is only half over. Things then become wonderfully chaotic, complicated by factors that no one involved — not Everett, not Martine, and certainly not Terry — anticipated. The director, Roger Donaldson (“Dante’s Peak,” “Thirteen Days”), presents London as a city consisting entirely of underworld, and several key players become involved, including a sleazy porn king (David Suchet), a brothel madame (Sharon Maughan), a lot of crooked cops, and even some members of Parliament. Terry and his gang might be a little unsavory, but at least they don’t spend taxpayer dollars on their vices.

The film is gritty in that invigorating, 1970s kind of way (with plenty of vivid British slang from the period), and it has the messiness and extraneous details of a true story. Terry’s female car-lot employee (do we ever even learn her name?), a government agent who infiltrates Michael X’s inner circle, and at least one of Terry’s crew members are all ultimately unnecessary characters, and an entirely fictional screenplay wouldn’t bother to fabricate them. Their presence here, whether they actually existed or not, adds to the film’s tangly sense of realism. It’s more than enough to help the film overcome its inauspicious beginning, not to mention that boring title.

B (1 hr., 50 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, a lot of nudity, moderate violence, some sexuality.)