Ah, the pleasures of the heist film. Something for nothing. Sticking it to The Man. Tricky problems solved by clever people both in the planning stages and on the spot. And, just to make it really fun, sometimes, as here, it is based on a true story. Yes, as they say, now it can be told. Once upon a time back in 1970, when cameras, cops, bank security, and princesses were very different from what we get nowadays, the sister of the Queen of England was photographed in a compromising position by an enterprising gangster who used the photos to blackmail the government. The prints and film were tucked away in a safe deposit box at a bank frequented by somewhat shady types. And it seemed to MI-5, the British equivalent of the Secret Service, that the best way to clear up this spot of trouble was to rob the bank. Efficient and discreet as always, they dispatched one of their officers to find some criminals to do the job.
It’s a delicious story with the “good guys” less trustworthy than the bad guys on one side and the bad guys not nearly as bad as the really bad guys they are stealing from. So we have the pleasure of rooting for the people in the middle, with Jason Statham as Terry Leather, a devoted family man and luxury car dealer who is willing to be slightly shady, especially if it gets him out of his spot of trouble with some loan sharks and the crew he assembles, an easy-going porn star, a genteel con man with an aristocratic accent, and a woman of more mystery than even Terry knows (Saffron Burrows). They rent a storefront two doors away from the bank and tunnel underneath to get to the bank’s safe deposit vault. It turns out that vault contains some other boxes kept by unsavory characters who will have their own efficient and discreet — and ruthless — tactics for getting back what has been stolen from them.
The premise is irresistible — an authorized bank robbery with the good bad guys stealing from the really bad bad guys, and our engaging anti-heroes quickly get us on their side. Terry’s elegant sense of honor among thieves makes him a fine center of the story. It is all just long ago enough to allow us to enjoy the story’s quaintness — the early use of walkie-talkies in a pre-cell-phone era and the intervention of a ham radio operator, not to mention the whole idea of anyone’s being concerned about some naughty pictures of a princess. Stylish direction from Roger Donaldson and British understatement balance the tension with sly and often-outrageous humor. “This is the most excitement I’ve had since the war!” Lord Mountbatten exclaims happily as he plays his part in the rescue of Princess Margaret’s reputation, with this collision of this old-fashioned but clear-eyed chivalry with a story of endearing bad guys ripping off gangsters to save the honor of the royal family, we understand how he feels.
Parents should know that while there is a light-hearted tone to this film, it has some disturbing and mature material. Characters are in peril and some are tortured and murdered. Characters use very strong language and there are sexual references and situations including nudity and pornography. Characters drink and smoke and deal in drugs. Many of the characters in all categories — government officials, petty thieves, and gangsters — lie, cheat, blackmail, take payoffs, and/or steal.
Families who see this movie should talk about who was and was not honest and why. How would this situation be handled today? What would be easier and what would be more difficult?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, The Italian Job, and The Transporter, all featuring Statham.