Taut, economical and fast-moving, Roger Donaldson‘s The Bank Job (Lionsgate, 3.7) is the best heist film I’ve seen in a long while. I don’t want to blow a gasket over this thing because it’s just a good British popcorn film, but entertainments of this sort — tight, tough, well-honed — are few and far between.

I’m starting to think it’s Donaldson’s best film since (no exaggeration) No Way Out. And by my sights it’s the first quality film that Jason Statham‘s ever made. Sometimes I think he’s the new Steve McQueen and sometimes not, but now I finally respect the guy.
The film is based on a real rip-off that happened in London in 1971, known as the “walkie-talkie robbery.” The bizarre distinction was that MI5 (i.e., high-level spooks) planned and monitored it from start to finish in order to recover compromising photos of one of the royals that were being held by a criminal in a safety deposit box in a Lloyd’s Bank.
Their agent is Saffron Burrows‘ Martine, who’s trying to escape a drug-smuggling rap. She persuades Statham’s Terry, a car dealer with gambling debts, to get a small team together to break into a vault of safety-deposit boxes and take the cash and jewels. Half of the film is about the initial job, the other half about the robbers trying not to get stepped on due to having found evidence of police corruption in one of the boxes, and because of some other compromising photos that certain higher-ups want destroyed. It’s all turns messy but also shifty and suspenseful.

Roger Donaldson, Jason Statham

For my money The Bank Job is much better than any of the Ocean’s films because it’s more focused and down-to-it, and without the smirk or the attitude. It doesn’t have the tragic arc of Rififi or The Asphalt Jungle, or the charm of Big Deal on Madonna Street or Topkapi, or the dark undercurrents in Sexy Beast…but it’s got an extra layer of fascination because it’s all more or less true.
I’d say it’s somewhere in the realm of The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, The Great Train Robbery and David Mamet‘s Heist. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it honors the trappings and then some.
Special credit is due to screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais for keeping the dialogue straight and smart and always keeping the audience abreast. The standouts among the first-rate case are David Suchet (wearing a gray-haired wig), Peter Bowles, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson and Richard Lintern.
The Bank Job is going right on my Best of 2008 list. That’s obviously not saying much at this time of year, but for anyone with a liking for well-oiled machines this is a no-lose proposition.