For proof that film is a director's medium, try a double feature of The Bank Job, Roger Donaldson's fact-based heist movie about an infamous bank robbery in 1971 London, and Inside Man, Spike Lee's colorful genre effort from two years ago. Both tell essentially the same story about a vault plundering where the non-monetary contents of a bank's safety deposit boxes are more valuable than the millions lost. The difference is in the telling: Lee not only provides Inside Man with an artful studio sheen, but colors in the margins with a vision of melting-pot New York that's as tart in its way as anything since The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three. For his part, Donaldson gets so distracted by orchestrating the ins and outs of a complicated plot that he misses the backdrop of Swinging London, and how the robbery scandalizes a nation accustomed to keeping its perversions under lock and key.
Donaldson also misses the chance to score some easy laughs from his petty criminals, who are infinitely more audacious than they are competent. Jason Statham stars as the ringleader, a failed car-garage operator who needs a get-rich-quick scheme to relieve his debt to various black-market thugs. Fortune comes calling when an acquaintance, played by Saffron Burrows, tells him about a poorly secured bank vault on Baker Street in London. The only catch is that Burrows—and her powerful employers—want access to a safety deposit box containing several incriminating photos, including separate dalliances committed by a wanted black militant and a member of the royal family. So Statham rounds up his mostly hapless chums and the gang starts digging a tunnel underneath the bank vault, all while communicating via a walkie-talkie transmission that threatens to give the game away.
Faced with a plot teeming with political intrigue, logistical challenges, and a slew of crucial supporting players, Donaldson plunges The Bank Job into near-total chaos for the first 20 minutes before finally pulling out of the tailspin. From there, the film delivers the goods with much the same no-nonsense proficiency as Donaldson's No Way Out or Thirteen Days, and it at least functions well as a superficially entertaining genre piece. But The Bank Job would probably go down a little easier if there weren't so much potential for seizing on a ripe cultural moment. Some stories are too good for mediocrity.