review by KJ Doughton, 12 October 2001

With Bandits, director Barry Levinson has dredged up the most shopworn premise in film, and revived it with his masterful command of nuance, mood, and humor. Yeah, it’s another outlaws-on-the-lam flick, but in this veteran filmmaker’s hands, Bandits feels fresh and invigorated. For instance, how many crime films feature a hypochondriac antihero who carries The Merck Medical Manual on the dashboard of his car, while listening to talking books about vaginitis and brain tumors? How many such genre pieces choose the uplifting tempo of U2’s “Beautiful Day” over a noisy, overstated orchestration? How many cinema bank robbers are so polite that they charm the tellers even as they’re hauling away the loot? Meanwhile, Levinson keeps things jumping with a frantic, guerilla-filmmaking immediacy that brings to mind Steven Soderberg, even as a breezy, casual humor calms the pace. Bandits also laces this unusual brew with a brilliant soundtrack that brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s use of music to accent dramatic moments. It’s a terrific ride.

Bandits begins in the midst of a desperate robbery attempt. An “America’s Most Wanted”-style telecast informs us that two infamous stick-up men, Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) and Joe Blake (Bruce Willis), have been surrounded in a Los Angeles bank and are running out of options. We’re introduced to the former, as he whines in desperation. “I’m trapped like a rat,” moans the neurotic, worrywart Terry, “and I’m destined for an early grave.” Meanwhile, the more stoic, silent Joe would rather reflect back on how the two partners dug themselves into such an inescapable hole. The scene is set: it’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets Dog Day Afternoon.

Suddenly, Bandits flashes back several months earlier, when both men are doing time at Oregon State Prison. The always-manic Terry is distraught over the news that the warden is banning garlic from the premises. “It’s a cure all,” he insists. “I use it for everything.” Meanwhile, the more macho Joe beats a sparring partner to a pulp during a prison boxing practice. Seems the other fighter chipped Joe’s tooth with a surprise uppercut. “Practice your anger management,” screams Terry from the sidelines in the manner of a guy who has thumbed through one too many self-help books.

The two incarcerated friends begin their next round of crime not with a bang, but with a humble wish. “I’d sure like to sleep in a comfortable bed,” confesses the ponytailed Joe, “after eating a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake for dinner.” With this vision of freedom dancing in his impulsive head, Joe instigates a spontaneous prison break using a cement truck, with Terry going along for the ride. “I’ve got a real Quasimodo-style bell-tower ringing in my head,” Terry complains, plugging fingers into ears as their rig takes bullets from prison sharpshooters and smashes through chain link fences. The whole frantic escape is played out to the appropriate tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” in one of Bandits’ many ingenious injections of classic rock.

It’s here that Bandits discloses an attention to detail that drives the film away from cookie-cutter formula. The two outlaws take refuge in a unique form of hideout: it’s a suburban home with two teen-agers house-sitting for a vacationing couple. Rather than be terrified when the outlaw strangers break in and question them, the two youngsters are more than eager to help them out. Indeed, Terry and Joe become the attention-giving surrogate parents missing from this abode, if only for a short time. The duo plans its future, opting to retire south of the border and open a nightclub, despite Terry’s initial misgivings. “It’s Mexico,” he explains, “and I have some sanitation issues.” He warms to the concept, however, when visions of tuxedos and margaritas flash through his excitable noggin.

As the fugitives trek south, through such Northwest towns as Silverton and Oregon City, they pick up Harvey (Troy Garity), a young, slow-witted relative of Joe’s who becomes their driver in a series of robberies. Their modus operandi involves taking bank managers hostage an evening before the thefts occur. This routine, which earns them the nickname “Sleepover Bandits” in the media, allows them access to the banks early the following morning, when the managers discreetly let them in to lift the loot. Joe has plans for his share of the dough: to take Hollywood by storm and become a professional stuntman. “I’m gonna make a name for myself with fire,” he promises.

Adding to Bandits’ canvas of characters is Kate (Cate Blanchett), who chops up carrots and celery in the kitchen while gyrating to stereo music and belting out her favorite tunes, Janis Joplin-style. Clearly, this rebel personality is not made out for domestic life. Meanwhile, when her yuppie husband darts home just fast enough to announce that he’ll “be at the gym” and has no time to eat, we sense the personal prison that this neglected wife has been reluctantly condemned to. When Kate accidentally hits Terry from behind the wheel, she insists that he get in the car for a ride to the hospital. Even after the crook reveals his identity, and demands her car, she senses a new lease on life and demands to join the excitement. “I’m desperate. I’ll shoot you unless you stop the car,” he warns, waving a pistol in her face. “Go ahead,” dares the depressed Kate. “Desperate is waking up and wishing you hadn’t, like I do.”

Soon, the sympathetic Terry reluctantly offers her a chance to join the bank-busting crew and drives her out to a woodsy cabin, where Joe awaits his return. Initially perturbed by Kate’s surprise presence, Joe is won over by her sad manner. “One of your eyes is a fraction darker than the other,” he observes to this new presence with an admiring gaze. “No one ever noticed,” she responds, flattered by this unfamiliar attention.

Eventually, Bandits becomes a love triangle, with both men falling for Kate as they continue their crime spree en route to Mexico. Predictable, perhaps, but when her courtship with Joe begins as the two confess a mutual admiration for Bonny Tyler’s ballad, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” we nod in familiarity. Who hasn’t started a relationship based on love of music? Later, when Kate finds herself coupled with Terry, she finds his vulnerability a welcome contrast to Joe’s strong, silent demeanor. Blanchett and Thornton continue cementing their reputations as celluloid chameleons, while Willis’ more collected, low-key work acts as a counterbalance. Indeed, the “Die Hard” icon’s distinctive, chiseled mug and cool charisma are becoming as recognizable onscreen as Clint Eastwood’s similarly laconic presence.

Bandits seldom reaches the realms of belly-laugh humor. Its giggles result from a wise, low-key recognition of life’s absurdities. For instance, there’s the bank manager who suffers from a fainting disorder and can’t open the safe without passing out. Then there’s the image of Billy Bob Thornton in a vast range of increasingly ridiculous disguises, whether it’s a plaid golfer’s nerdy getup or the sideburns of a grungy Neil Young clone. Finally, there’s the perfectly realized finale, a wrap-up that’s as light as a feather, but just as smart as what’s gone before. It might not rub your nose in the harshness of criminal life like its box-office competition Training Day, but during these tense times, the cerebral, unthreatening humor and thoughtful soundtrack of Bandits are a welcome combination, indeed.

Directed by:
Barry Levinson

Bruce Willis
Cate Blanchett
Billy Bob Thornton
Troy Garity

Written by:
Harley Peyton

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult




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