Grade: B

Ordinarily it’s a very bad sign when the producers on a movie outnumber the leading actors by a substantial margin. On that basis the prospects don’t look very rosy for “Bandits.” No fewer than seven names are listed on the producers’ roster, but the picture is basically a piece for just four actors–three guys and a single gal. (There are other performers, to be sure, but they appear only briefly.) Fortunately, there’s but a single writer and director, and they prove quite capable indeed. In the former case that’s rather a surprise: scripter Harley Peyton (also listed as an “executive” producer, and so not one of the notorious seven) was previously responsible for the poor adaptations of Brett Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero” in 1987 James Lee Burke’s “Heaven’s Prisoners” in 1996, and on his own penned the dull noir pastiche “Keys to Tulsa” (1997). But here, though the plot he’s contrived has the ring of formula about it, the characterizations prove sufficiently loopy, and the dialogue amusing enough, to keep things bright and sassy. And he’s fortunate to have had his work brought to screen by Barry Levinson, a director almost perfectly attuned to this kind of quirky material. Levinson has had his failures, of course–1998’s “Sphere” was a shapeless science-fiction mess–but he’s proven adept at balancing comedy with more serious elements in pictures like “Diner,” and he’s pulled off both a farce like “Wag the Dog” and dramas such as “Rain Man” and “Sleepers” with equal aplomb. As it turns out, he’s the right choice for “Bandits,” and in his hands the picture’s pitch is almost unerringly on target. The result is a somewhat predictable but quite enjoyable lark, a traditional buddy-heist movie that offers genuine humor instead of the gross-out stuff we usually see nowadays.

The story’s heroes are two mismatched escaped cons–smug, aggressive, short-tempered Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) and smart but hypochondriacal and self-deprecating Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton)–who, after their impulsive breakout, begin a career as the “sleepover” robbers: they take bank managers hostage at home and then accompany them to work the following morning, emptying the vaults before the building even opens for business. As they continue their spree, they acquire two other partners: Harvey Pollard (Troy Garity), a sweet-natured but decidedly dumb would-be stuntman who signs on as their getaway driver, and Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett), the unhappy wife of a prosperous but inconsiderate businessman who links up accidentally with the pair and soon becomes a bone of romantic contention between them. The group proceed from town to town, growing in celebrity as they go; in fact, their career is related retrospectively by the host of an “America’s Most Wanted”-type TV show, who informs us solemnly at the start that the boys died while attempting their last job. We return to that final caper at the film’s close to find out what actually went down during it, and–needless to say, given the expectations of today’s audiences–there’s a twist that sorts everything out in a silly but necessarily happy fashion.

“Bandits” is sort of a mixture of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Odd Couple” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” but thanks to Peyton, Levinson and a skilled cast, it possesses a tone that works on its own and provides a good deal of pleasure. What’s initially most surprising about Willis is how much, with his long hair and self-satisfied smirk, he resembles Mickey Rourke; but though he’s hardly taxed by his role (it’s quite similar, in fact, to the one he played in “The Whole Nine Yards”), he glides through it effortlessly. It’s probably a good thing he doesn’t work too hard, because the picture’s pretty much stolen by Thornton, who’s a hoot as a Felix Ungar type with a large vocabulary, a sharp tongue and a perpetually hangdog expression. He has most of the best lines, and his deadpan delivery of them earns big laughs. If he weren’t so great, Garity might have run off with the movie: he’s terrific as a genial doofus with a thing for fire, fake death scenes and roadside blondes. Blanchett is less fortunate as the woman who disrupts the camaraderie among the guys. As written Kate, with her penchant for hysteria and an addiction to sappy pop tunes, is more blatantly artificial than the other characters, and she’s given some “big” moments–one in which she lip-syncs to the radio while making a meal and another which features her singing (badly) by a bonfire–that are more embarrassing than enchanting. Elsewhere Blanchett is likable enough, but she never seems to inhabit her role as fully as her three co-stars do. As for the remainder of the cast, some make strong impressions in small roles (especially Peggy Miley and Richard Riehle as two victims), but most are instantly forgettable. Surprisingly–but thankfully–there’s no space in the script for a major pursuer of the heroes–no Tommy Lee Jones figure from “The Fugitive.” The absence of that element leaves more room for the real meat of the story–the bickering and banter between Joe and Terry. And Thornton and Willis take advantage of the opportunity to good effect.

There are flaws in “Bandits.” The “America’s Most Wanted” element is rather flat–the satirical potential isn’t fulfilled here–and the big finale, which tries desperately to tie everything together satisfactorily, is filled with the most obvious holes. Even these problems don’t seriously undermine the movie, though. Thanks to the writing–clever and pointed more often than not– along with Levinson’s astute direction and an adept cast, it’s an amiable, genuinely funny picture, a real treat after the summer stream of terrible Hollywood product.