At least in terms of formal daring, ambition trumps execution in Smash & Grab: The Story Of The Pink Panthers, a documentary about the most successful diamond thieves in world history. With a cumulative haul of over $300 million pilfered during the last decade-plus, The Pink Panthers have proven that success comes from strategy: Operating as a 200-person network of criminals who never know exactly to whom they’re reporting, the organization prizes preparation and discipline as the keys to success. Alas, those qualities aren’t fully exhibited by director Havana Marking, who recounts The Pink Panthers’ saga via an inventive combination of on-the-street footage, archival video and photos, security-camera clips of a few robberies, and chats with Panthers, who—in order to maintain anonymity—talk in altered voices and are, in two instances, computer animated for both their interviews and heist re-creations. This last mode is striking and yet winds up being the most problematic for the film, as it proves less a practical method of hiding its speakers’ identities than a means of not-so-subtly mythologizing them. That’s furthered by the fanciful depiction of one suave Panther chatting at the edge of a CGI-fictional beach, a representation that—like the dramatic angles used for another Panther’s onscreen time—turns him into a dashing, romantic figure.
Smash & Grab is so impressed with The Panthers, whose reputation has a (largely phony) Robin Hood element, that it often tips into unjustified fawning. More troubling still is that its creative aesthetic mélange leads to narrative clunkiness and a frustrating lack of structure. Transitioning between speakers (some seen, others just heard) with confusing alacrity, the film is a messy stew of comments from random law-enforcement officials, recollections of a daring Spain heist, discussions of a later Dubai job, and background on the origins of the thieves, many of whom hail from the former Yugoslavia. Marking’s recap of Yugoslavia’s post-Tito fracturing, and the criminal underworld that emerged in the wake of European sanctions, provides vital context. But her mostly skin-deep portrait of The Panthers undercuts her attempts to present their spree as an outgrowth of larger political/historical forces. Coupled with a failure to comprehensively detail tactical patterns or the processes of transporting or fencing stolen goods, Smash & Grab’s inability to truly get underneath the surface of its subjects renders it merely a compelling true-life tale in need of better telling.