Producer: Ghislain Barrois, Álvaro Augustin, Francisco Sánchez Ortiz, Enejo Lizarraga Arbatidel and Freddie Highmore   Director: Jaume Balagueró   Screenplay: Rafa Martínez, Andres Koppel, Borja Glez. Santaolalla, Michel Gaztambide and Rowan Athale    Cast: Freddie Highmore, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Sam Riley, Liam Cunningham, José Coronado, Luis Tosar, Emilio Gutíerrez Caba, Alex Stein, Daniel Holguín, James Giblin and Famke Janssen   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: C+

An elaborate heist movie about a complicated plot to break into the supposedly impregnable vault at the Bank of Spain in Madrid, “The Vault” benefits from a colorful setting but suffers from colorless characters and general shapelessness.

It starts with a prologue in which crusty salvage operator Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham) succeeds in a search that has obsessed him for decades.  In the waters off the Spanish coast he and his long-time diver James (Sam Riley) discover the submerged wreck of one of the ships captained by the sixteenth-century English privateer Sir Francis Drake, containing many boxes of booty from his pillaging of Spanish treasure vessels coming from the New World.  But no sooner do they locate it than a small Spanish armada appears and seizes the find for the state, locking it up in the national bank’s vault.

Walter is furious and plots to break into the huge underground safe—a supposedly impossible task, not with the intention of stealing all the heavy boxes of gold and jewels but only three coins in a small container within one of them.  According to legend they give directions to Drake’s personal treasure, which he buried somewhere but never retrieved.

So he assembles a crack crew: James; computer genius Klaus (Alex Stein); Simon (Luis Tosar), who can provide any equipment that might be required; and Lorraine ( Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), a beautiful, quick-fingered femme fatale.  It’s she who recruits Thom Laybrick (Freddie Highmore), a brilliant young engineer just graduated from Oxford who’s being courted by all the big corporations but is looking for something more challenging than the usual drudge work.  His brain is needed to work out how the vault’s security system functions and a means to circumvent it. 

If he succeeds, to pull off the heist the gang will have to elude the watchfulness of the bank’s obsessive security chief Gustavo (José Coronado).  And their attempt is set against the backdrop of the 2010 World Cup finals, which will fill the square outside the bank with a wall-to-wall throng of revelers cheering on the national team via huge screens broadcasting the matches played in Johannesburg.  Spain’s making it to the championship match will, in fact, become an integral component to the crew’s ability to go ahead with their plan after being stymied by a succession of unexpected obstacles.

The actual robbery is an odd combination of careful planning and last-minute improvisation, ending with an escape that comes across as pure luck and several twists, the last of which points feebly in the direction of a trans-channel sequel.  An especially strange plot contrivance is that Thom must intuit that the vault is protected by a water trap that will flood the underground chamber if it is breached.  But that’s been known for a long while.  Thom does earn his keep, though, by devising a method to short-circuit it.

“The Vault” has the makings of a clever heist flick, but the screenplay by no fewer than five writers never manages to tie up all the loose ends into a satisfying package, and Jaume Balagueró’s direction is too often sluggish rather than crisp, a trait exacerbated by David Gallart’s erratic editing. 

Nor are the characters especially winning.  Cunningham exudes a grouchy attitude but little more, and Riley is boringly stiff as his miracle diver, even when protesting Thom’s addition to the crew, while Coronado’s unremitting glower gets old fast. Tosar and Stein are simply nondescript, and though Bergès-Frisbey is certainly attractive, Lorraine’s teasing attitude is never as charming as she thinks. Famke Janssen shows up as a British lawyer/intelligence agent just long enough to pose in some nice suits and deliver a few lines with haughty affectation.

That leaves Highmore, a fine young actor who can’t compensate for the fact that as written his character here remains pretty much a bland cipher whose motivations remain murky and whose unlikely he-man qualities emerge so abruptly as to be almost laughable.  Lorraine comes on to him, of course, but there’s no chemistry to the relationship.  Given the limitations, it’s understandable that Highmore chooses just to look on bemusedly as the plot unfolds, apart from the scenes in which he has to run around anxiously.  One can understand why he’d want to do something different from his past work, but this was not the best choice.

Still, you can give “The Vault” points for its use of the World Cup excitement as a backdrop, even though it might have been integrated into the narrative more cleverly, and for a great look, courtesy of production designer Patrick Salvador and cinematographer Daniel Aranyó.  Arnau Bataller’s score tries its best to keep the momentum going, but it’s often fighting a losing battle.

As a heist movie, this will never reach classic status, but it can provide a modestly engaging ride if you’re willing to tolerate some serious potholes along the way.