Even if you didn’t know Bandits was made in 2001, you’d automatically know it was made in the late '90s to early oughts. There’s just something about the film that screams that time period. It’s not so much the period aspect of it - the clothes, cars, etc - but rather I think it stems from both Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis having the lead roles in a Barry Levinson film. Those two actors have had long, storied careers and certainly have made plenty of films since Bandits, but there’s a certain something about those years that pits them as romantic leads.
I remember seeing previews for the film, but then it quickly disappeared. From memory, the reviews weren’t particularly kind. Which is precisely why I’m just now getting around to seeing it. That’s too bad as its a much better film that they’d have you believe. It has its flaws, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still rather charming.
Willis and Thornton play Joe Blake and Terry Collins, a couple of friends who make a daring (and rather ridiculous) escape from prison (seriously, they ride out on a cement truck). They then stumble upon the idea of robbing banks by kidnapping the bank manager in his/her own home and staying over until early the next morning where they make the manager open up the vaults. Dubbed the "sleepover bandits" by a tabloid TV show (which come to think of it is a much better name than the film's generic Bandits, but some marketing exec must of deemed it too sexy, something a Barry Levinson flick would never be), the duo, alongside their rather ridiculously dumb getaway driver (Troy Garity), roam the countryside robbing banks and getting rich.
When they meet Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett), the film starts to lose its footing. Blanchett is a wonderful actress and she does well with the material she’s given. It's just that the character never really makes a lot of sense. She’s deeply unhappy, listlessly living in a loveless marriage and probably a little unhinged. When she nearly runs over Terry and he tries to hijack her car, she just kind of goes along for the ride. Then she just sort of keeps staying with them. She sleeps with Joe, and later Terry, creating an unconvincing love triangle.
The film is at its best when the gang is pulling heists and dealing with the assortment of families during their “sleepovers.” There are some hilariously uncomfortable family dinners, and at least one manager who is just thrilled he celebrity bandits are going to be staying with her. The chemistry between the three leads works well and the actors make it all work as well as the can, but the romances just never work.
The tone is a bit disjointed as well. Levinson never seems sure if he’s making a romantic comedy, a bank-heist caper, or a razor sharp satire. It doesn’t help that the story is told non-linear with a tabloid TV host discussing their last robbery as sort of bookends to the film. There’s some satire hidden in their about celebrity culture and our love of unethical elements, but it never really gets fleshed out.
Overall, Bandits is an uneven film that is elevated from fine performances from Willis, Thornton and Blanchett but needed some sharper work from director Levinson. Olive Films has given us a bare bones Blu-ray. The video and audio look and sound quite sharp, though not good enough that you’ll be showing it off any time soon. There are no extras at all.