by Ed Symkus

There are many standard rules of moviemaking, such as a good story, good acting and writing and directing, sharp cinematography, non-invasive music. Sometimes some of these ingredients are right where they belong; more often they're allowed to slide. Fortunately, Bandits has got them all. But the film goes a step further. It takes into consideration and then delivers a couple of components that seem to evade almost every film since the day Ken Russell made The Devils: a great beginning and a great ending.

Well, hallelujah! It's about time a film came along that grabbed the viewer from the opening frame -- in this case it's a bank robbery that seems to have gone very wrong, briefly reminiscent of certain events in Dog Day Afternoon. Then it goes on to tell a tale of two oddly matched criminals on the lam, along with some hangers-on and a public that's quickly turning the two protagonists into folk heroes, alternating in mood between being funny, serious and romantic. And another well-deserved hallelujah for the snappy ending. While it may seem to pop up out of the blue, if you think about the ending afterwards, you'll realize that it has been foreshadowed all along..

Never fear: Nothing about the ending or the clues leading up to it will be revealed here. But let it be said that it's the best one of the year so far, and will most likely stay so at least until the release of the Steve Martin topper Novocaine next month.

Here we've got director Barry Levinson very much out of his Baltimore element -- as he was in his little-seen, quite charming An Everlasting Piece -- but feeling quite at home in the Pacific Northwest. Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) are two unlikely pals serving some time up there. Terry is a sort of thinking man's hypochondriac, always planning out everything he says or does, while keeping an eye out for those pesky germs that he believes are waiting to ravage him. Joe is simpler. He doesn't spend much time thinking. As a man of action, if an idea comes his way he jumps on it -- kind of the way he physically jumps on someone who crosses him, a hint of his need for anger management.

In a film full of recognizably human characters and situations, this one starts off with a completely unbelievable prison break. But any viewer's willingness just to go with it at this point will result in the reward of being totally entertained later on. Which is not to say, however, that the escape is the film's only flaw. There's a noticeable lag in the action at around the two-thirds point, and the confusing addition of a bogus reality TV show called Criminals at Large that intermittently adds some backstory to the plot is overused (although the show's host -- played by raspy-voiced comic Bobby Slayton -- is terrific).

Almost everything else about the film is terrific. Willis' character and his acting are cool, calm and collected. Thornton wonderfully presents himself as a mix of being addled and perplexed. And when some car trouble introduces Cate Blanchett's unhappy Kate to our "heroes," there's also an introduction to a whole new side of the amazing Blanchett. It seems that she does comedy as well as she does everything else. For those who have trouble finding her in the film, yes, she's the woman with long red hair and no trace of her Australian accent.

Kate is actually the fourth member -- along with Joe's dim cousin Harvey (Troy Garity) -- of a group that soon becomes known as the Sleep-over Bandits. Their name comes from their propensity to visit a bank manager's home at night, announce their intent of robbing his institution the next day, then having dinner with the manager and family, catching some sleep, and doing their dirty work the next morning before there are any crowds.

The plan, what there is of one, is to rob banks all down the west coast, then retire to Mexico. Things, of course, don't go exactly as planned. As far as the circumstances of the criminal quartet, an unlikely (but not unbelievable) romance really gets in the way, and that relationship becomes the center of all attention. As far as the offbeat sensibilities of the film, some of the treats include a few very funny music references stretching from Neil Young to Bonnie Tyler, while another one listens closely to Blanchett's astounding (and funny) inability to carry a tune -- specifically Walk on By. Some of the best comedy presented here has to do with the ridiculous disguises both Joe and Terry don to fool the public. Thornton in a long blond wig is priceless.

Serious, funny, serious, funny, the film can't seem to make up its mind. Let's just call it a funny movie with some serious edges. Let's also call it a tremendously enjoyable hit in the making that's going to get great word of mouth.

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