Proper Villains

by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & wouldn't want to live in the world of The Bank Job, in which absolutely everyone is corrupt except for the bad guys. Wait: I guess we already do. Sure, of course we do, 'cause this is based on a true story, and what's most interesting about the truth of it is not the criminal derring-do but the audacity of everyone else -- none of whom would dare to call themselves criminal, even though they are.

It's like this. In September 1971, British newspapers were filled with news about the brazen robbery of a safe-deposit vault at a Baker Street bank. There are some astonishing details that, if you're up on your London urban legends, you probably already know -- but which I won't reveal here because if you don't already know them, they add genuine suspense to what's unfolding onscreen. Suffice it to say that the cops couldn't do a damn thing to stop the robbery, even though they knew about it while it was still in progress.

Nobody really knows how much the thieves took because hardly anyone comes forward to lay claim to the contents of safe-deposit boxes. This is where people put their valuable stuff when they don't want the bank to know what they're are hiding there.

And then -- and here is where the really insidious, really juicy conspiracy-theory stuff comes in -- after a few days, the story disappears from the newspapers. It's just gone, as if it never existed. Everyone assumes a government cover-up. Rumors run wild about what could possibly have been stolen from those boxes -- maybe just one of those boxes -- that would prompt the government to quash the story.

That's where The Bank Job exists, in the delicious space among all the unknowns, filling in those blanks, guessing on some of it but working from as many possibly known quantities as it can. Maybe it's not the 100 percent truth -- maybe it's half, or more, invented. But it's a damn good guess, and a ridiculously entertaining one.

Jason Statham -- whom I've never much liked before, but he's perfect here -- leads a band of, well, patsies, though of course they don't know that's what they are: guys who've been set up to pull off this break-in and take out something that the British covert agencies really, really need to keep secret. (The someone it belongs to is threatening to go public with it, and it's that someone's box the thing needs to be stolen from.) Statham's small-time crook Terry cooks up a careful plan for the job, but he's suspicious, of course, of the old girlfriend, Martine (Saffron Burrows), who brought it to him, and he's right to be. Terry ain't the brightest bulb, but he ain't totally stupid, either. He knows that Martine is up to something.

We do too, which is part of the brilliance of the script by the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe, Flushed Away). We know more than Terry does, and even if we don't know it all -- even if we can't guess how it's all going to shake out -- we know it's not gonna be good. But it is gonna be a whole helluva lot of fun getting there -- that much is obvious from the get-go.

Did I say I didn't want to live in this world? It's not so bad, actually, if we've got no choice. Director Roger Donaldson (The Recruit, Thirteen Days) makes the cynicism of not being able to trust anyone seem like an OK place to be. Terry isn't a bad guy at all -- even if his work is a bit shady -- and The Bank Job ends up being a fresh and cheery spin on the heist movie. It's really easy to root for Terry and his gang, after all. Acknowledged villains are the only ones worth rooting for.