[Screen It]

(2001) (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton) (PG-13)

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Comedy: Despite becoming increasingly popular with the public, a disparate group of robbers attempt to knock off enough banks so that they can retire and pursue their dreams.
Joe Blake (BRUCE WILLIS) and Terry Collins (BILLY BOB THORNTON) are partners in crime who've just broken out of Oregon State Prison. Quickly returning to their bank robbing ways, the two enlist the aid of Harvey Pollard (TROY GARITY), Joe's cousin and stuntman wannabe, as their driver and lookout man.

Joe wishes to make enough money so that he can retire south of the border and open a casino. That sounds good to Terry, the cautious hypochondriac, but he suggests a lower profile way of knocking off the banks, namely kidnapping and spending the evening with the bank manager and his or her family the night before the robbery and then calmly going in the next morning before anyone's there and taking the money.

The ploy works, but things become more complicated when Kate Wheeler (CATE BLANCHETT), a disillusioned and some eccentric homemaker, suddenly pops into their lives. Although Terry isn't happy with her joining their team - despite being the one responsible for her meeting them - Joe's immediately smitten and the two become an item.

As the quartet of robbers leave a trail of knocked off banks from Oregon to California, they gain fame as the "Sleepover Bandits," especially after being featured on the TV show "Criminals at Large" hosted by Darren Head (BOBBY SLAYTON).

When Terry eventually becomes involved with Kate during one of their many two-week layovers between jobs, however, and their identities become known to everyone, the camaraderie of the team is threatened, ultimately leading to one last heist they hope will provide the big payoff they need.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Ask any bank robber - successful or not and of the past or present -- and they'll probably tell you that timing is everything, that picking the right people for the team is as crucial as being proficient at what you do, that one shouldn't attempt anything extraneous beyond what's necessary for the job, and that it's not wise to overstay your welcome.

The same holds true for filmmaking, whether making a romantic comedy, a horror film, or even a picture about bank robbers. Since there have been countless ones that fall into the latter category, it's crucial that filmmakers follow those rules lest their audience lose interest and/or report the "crime" - if the movie turns out to be bad - to the cinema police, which in this case turns out to be other viewers.

Just like a most wanted list is detrimental to a bank robber's career, negative word of mouth has the same effect on individual movies. Fortunately, the comments regarding "Bandits," director Barry Levinson's ("Rain Man," "Bugsy") latest comedy about a quartet of charming and likable bank robbers, should be of the positive variety.

An occasionally slow moving but amiable and enjoyable yarn, the picture doesn't follow all of the rules to a T, but doesn't break them to enough of an extent to turn off viewers. Levinson has certainly assembled good teams both in front of and behind the camera who are obviously proficient as what they do.

The film sports a polished and pleasing look - thanks to cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential") - and screenwriter Harley Peyton's ("Less Than Zero," "Heaven's Prisoners") script is fun all around, but particularly in a cumulative sort of way where things pay off in both a smart and efficient manner without feeling forced. The result should leave viewers both content and entertained in how things eventually turn out.

It certainly doesn't hurt matters that Levinson has gathered a terrific group of performers who take their characters and story to another level. Bruce Willis ("Unbreakable," "The Whole Nine Yards") might not be stretching his acting skills too far in playing the roguish criminal who can easily switch from charming to threatening at the drop of a hat - after all, we've seen him do that, complete with accompanying smirk, many times before. Nevertheless, he's still quite entertaining in the role.

The same holds true for Troy Garity ("Steal This Movie," "Bohemia") as his cousin-cum-stuntman wannabe, as he brings the proper eccentricities to the role to make it work. It's just too bad that he doesn't have more screen time or stuntman mishaps, but what's present is amusing.

His share of time thankfully doesn't go to waste, though, as both Billy Bob Thornton ("Pushing Tin," "Armageddon") and Cate Blanchett ("The Gift," "Elizabeth") pick up the slack and then some. Blanchett proves that she's more than adept at playing a quirky character in a physical comedy sense, and it's both a pleasant and successful change of pace for her after so many dramatic roles.

The most enjoyable character, however, completely belongs to Thornton who's nothing short of a blast to watch as the hypochondriacal naysayer who's sensitive to and picks up whatever might be ailing others. Peyton's script allows for all sorts of amusing and hilarious moments related to that, including the physical sight gag of Terry believing he's half paralyzed while on the dance floor. Other moments between his and other characters - such as Terry and Kate's initial meeting and then his reaction to her careless and despondent driving - are quite amusing.

Where the film falters a bit is in its overall comedic timing and pacing, as well as the fact that it overstays its welcome by twenty or so minutes. Beyond feeling a bit long and suffering from some downtime between the robberies, Levinson unwisely returns to a bit where a TV crime show host - played by Bobby Slayton ("Loser," "Get Shorty") -- interviews Terry and Joe.

While I understand what Levinson was trying to do with the bits and acknowledge that they do impart some info that helps in the film's payoff at the end, the repeated visits to those scenes throw off the film's rhythm and really aren't that necessary.

In addition, the bank robbers' methods and practices aren't always of the "that's pretty cool" variety where they please through their sheer inventiveness, although the robbers' interaction with others before and during the crimes is entertaining, as is their reaction to unplanned events.

Overall, the film is both pleasing and entertaining to behold, with the four central performers and their characters being responsible for much of that. Yet, with the deletion of the TV host scenes and some other pruning, the picture could have been a classic of its genre. Even so, those are just minor quibbles in what's otherwise a very enjoyable and smart comedy. "Bandits" might not get away with everything it tries, but it's good enough to rate as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 4, 2001 / Posted October 12, 2001

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