The English gangster movie has a long, and frankly pretty undistinguished, history, and most examples of the genre don’t make it beyond the boundaries of their native land. (The ones that have, in recent years, have been the revved-up models from people like Guy Ritchie, or stylish true crime efforts like Peter Medak’s “The Krays” or John Boorman’s “The General.”)
This procedural from Roger Donaldson in effect takes a middle route between fact and fiction. It’s based on a real bank robbery—the “walkie-talkie” break-in at a Lloyd’s Bank in London in 1971, so called because a ham radio operator honed in on the conversations among the members of the gang who tunneled into the vault from an adjacent luggage shop and notified the police, who tried unsuccessfully to locate the place being looted. But it uses the facts as a springboard for a highly fictionalized tale involving not only the robbers themselves but also a vicious Trinidad-born gangster posing as a black activist, a well-established kingpin specializing in sex clubs and pornography (and who has plenty of crooked cops on his payroll), and—most notably—British Intelligence and, by extension, the entire government. The result is a fanciful construct that imaginatively links what was certainly a well-planned but basically routine heist with indiscretions at the highest levels of the establishment, including the royal family.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But the script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais just isn’t clever or surprising enough: it’s complicated but conventional, and strikes no sparks. And at a crucial point it relies on an enormous coincidence to keep the plot going, having an accident intervene at the very moment when the robbers’ transmissions are about to be pinpointed. The dialogue, moreover, never gets much beyond the ordinary.
The picture also fails to juggle its myriad tones successfully. Curiously enough, what works best is the basic gangster stuff, simply because easily the best performance comes from comes from David Suchet, the erstwhile plump Hercule Poirot here looking much older and slightly emaciated as ruthless club mogul Lew Vogel. But that part of the plot takes the picture, in its final stages, into some graphically violent passages that not only are repugnant in themselves, but are decidedly at odds with the more lighthearted, if arch, material centering on ambitious spy Tim (Richard Lintern) and his snooty superiors, or the alternately comic and sultry bits concerning heist leader Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a used-car dealer in desperate need of money, his drinking buds Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Dave (Daniel Mays), and the ex-girlfriend (Saffron Burrows) who gets the guys involved in the job for reasons of her own. The send-up of the British upper classes, and the royals in particular, doesn’t come off very well, and it certainly contrasts poorly with the darker, nastier plot thread centering on Caribbean drug lord Michael X (Peter De Jersey). And the police procedural-ham radio material, with the contrast between the corrupt coppers and the straight-arrow inspector who prefers to catch the big fish even if he has to let smaller ones go, never really takes wing.
But the problem isn’t just that the script is a kind of grab-bag (did I mention that there’s also a domestic drama between Tim and his wife, which plays almost like a piece of kitchen-sink melodrama from the sixties?), but that it doesn’t knead the contents together smoothly, and Donaldson’s prosaic handling doesn’t inject much vigor to the proceedings. Nor, apart from the ever-reliable Suchet, is the cast able to overcome the general blandness. Statham is, as usual, intense but basically flat, De Jersey overdoes things as the black gangster, Burrows makes a hesitant femme fatale, Moore and Mays don’t register much energy as Tim’s goofy chums, and Lintern is sort of like an even duller version of George Lazenby as the uppity man from MI5. A lackluster physical production adds to the doldrums. The period detail is okay but never really stands out, and Michael Coulter’s cinematography copies the general look of semi-seedy London flicks from the 1970s, but without any panache. J. Peter Robinson’s music sounds routine, too.
Movies about crooks who tunnel into a bank from a nearby luggage store don’t exist in overabundance, but even still there’s a better one than this: Lloyd Bacon’s “Larceny, Inc.” (1942), with Edward G. Robinson, that has the considerable virtue of actually being funny. By contrast this is a pretty humdrum “Job.”