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‘Bandit’ (review)

Bandit is a Canadian-American crime-comedy starring Josh Duhamel (Transformers), Elisha Cuthbert (24), and Mel Gibson. The film was produced by Redbox Originals and Quiver Productions, directed by Allan Ungar (Gridlocked), and opens September 23rd.

Bandit is a dramatization of the life of George Galvan, “the Flying Bandit”, a notorious bank robber who completed 59 successful heists in a row during the late 80’s before being apprehended.

Bandit is a solid, likable, film: well cast, staged, and directed. Its subject, played with charm by Duhamel, plays into one of the most enduring archetypes in our popular consciousness: the “gentleman thief” who eschews violence and survives on his wits and audacity. Galvan is an American convicted of white-collar crime and sentenced to minimum-security prison who breaks loose and flees to Canada where he buys an ID (and thus, an alias) from a homeless man and charms his way into the life of a church shelter volunteer (Cuthbert) in a matter of weeks.

When a chance encounter during a job hunt out in Vancouver demonstrates the lack of security in Canadian banks, Galvan embarks on a series of daring heists using disguises, props, distractions, and his own moxie to build a new career for himself. He’s pursued by an Ontario detective (played by Nestor Carbonell) and bankrolled by the local leg-breaker (Mel Gibson, as the most likable thug in recent memory).

This is a surprisingly clever film that uses its period setting for all its worth: Ronald Reagan and the junk bond scandal of 1987 are frequently alluded to, the laxity of pre-9/11 airport security is used for one of the funniest gags in the film, Culture Club and the Nintendo Entertainment System make cameo appearances and in general, the lack of surveillance state to which we have become accustomed in the West is shown as being the key factor that allows to Galvan to exploit the system and evade capture for so long.

Ungar is not a director I am familiar with but his work on this film is better than solid. His direction is stylish and assured, and the film is well paced and acted. Duhamel seems to really rise to the material, reveling in the charm and tenacity of his role with real relish. Cuthbert is fine in a thankless role as the perplexed wife, who becomes seduced by the danger and audacity of her husband’s “career”. Gibson really elevates the film: obviously he’s no longer the marquee draw he once was, but he’s been a delight in everything I’ve seen with him lately. He brings real humor and humanity, finding layers in a role that has real subtext and importance. Gibson’s leg breaker acts as surrogate father to Galvan, a relationship he’s craved for his entire life, but the movie never beats us over the head with it. It’s understated, trusting the audience to make the connections which is really refreshing.

The film is not perfect: most of Galvan’s jobs are shown to be so easy that we rarely feel like he’s in danger and it feels like there’s a lot of lost opportunities for suspense. The film also borrows a device from Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain where particularly bizarre moments in the film are literally pointed out with an onscreen message telling us “Yes, this really happened.” The device is distracting, too clever for its own good, and takes us right out of the movie’s flow. I also feel like Cuthbert’s character is underwritten, a common problem in crime films like this, where her decision to wholeheartedly support her husband’s life of crime doesn’t feel like it follows from anything else we’ve learned from her to that point.

That said, this movie is a wonderful surprise: a fine indie caper film with some smarts and style. It’s an easy recommendation, and when the film is firing on all cylinders it kind of plays like a poor man’s Wolf of Wall Street: a seductive and charming criminal giving us a first-hand account of his own career on his own terms.

Recommended.

3 ½ out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Eric Gozlan, Jordan Yale Levine, Jordan Beckerman
Written by Kraig Wenman
Based on The Flying Bandit by Robert Knuckle
Directed by Allan Ungar
Starring Josh Duhamel, Mel Gibson,
Elisha Cuthbert, Nestor Carbonell

 

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