The Bank Job is a movie that stars Jason Statham, but it’s not a Jason Statham movie. The chief attributes of his persona, as established in a long line of mostly-pretty-great action B-movies (like, say, this one or this one), are just not there. We don’t get the cold-eyed and square-jawed stare, or the explosive and somehow-still-surprising martial-arts abilities. There’s no scene where he’s surrounded by Russian gangsters and takes them all out, one by one. Instead, it capitalizes on his gruff but easy charm, his attentive manner, and that swagger of his, that way of presenting himself as a very capable man. He almost makes it to the end credits without kicking anyone. It’s weird. It’s great.
Of course, Statham came up in films not too different from this one. Before 2002’s The Transporter firmly established himself as some strange Cockney hybrid of Charles Bronson and Jet Li, he first found some measure of fame in two Guy Ritchie efforts, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. In both of those, he’s a fast-talking London con man, and that’s basically what he is here, too. The films share plenty of other attributes, too: dense plots, huge casts of colorful London underworld characters, rainy-grey color palettes, slick wardrobes. The Ritchie jams have more straight-up action scenes, and yet this one’s somehow still more of an action movie. The other two are screwball comedies in love with their own camera tricks. The Bank Job takes itself, and its star, seriously.
It also claims to be based on a true story, though its plot is so convoluted and outlandish that you’re forgiven for being skeptical. On the other hand, the British Lord who faces disgrace when someone photographs him with a dominatrix at a brothel was a real guy. And because so much of the plot here is based on details of a case that British authorities are still keeping secret, there’s no telling which parts are real. In any case, for all its freaky coincidences and intricate plans coming together, The Bank Job’s lurid tale of entrenched power structures looking after their own interests feels uncomfortably plausible.
Unless you catch Mick Jagger’s quick cameo as a bank employee, Statham is the only actor you’ll definitely recognize. (Saffron Burrows, the female lead, has spent some time in movies and on American TV shows, but come on, you don’t recognize Saffron Burrows on sight. Also, Alki David, the Greek shipping-heir billionaire who is currently bankrolling Chicago rapper Chief Keef’s entire life, has a pretty big role as a bank-vault expert. He’s not bad! But you probably won’t recognize him, either.) He plays a reformed crook who runs an only-slightly-corrupt used-car dealership and owes money to the mob; thanks to a complex setup, secretive British authorities send Burrows to recruit him into a bank robbery. There are compromising photos of a British royal in safe-deposit box, and they need him to steal them, and they need him to do it without him realizing he’s working for them.
So we get to see conman Statham and his loser buddies figuring out how to break into a bank without getting caught, and we also see them gradually figure out the depth of the shit they’re in. In both cases, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Despite its relative lack of shootouts, I’m calling this an action movie anyway, because the tense confrontations and cathartic getaways are exactly the sorts of things that action movies do well. And also because it has Jason Statham in it.
Sure, he gets to be tough and smart and calculating, the way he always is onscreen. But he also gets to be charming, and talk his way out of situations, way more than he usually does. In his first scene, he actually backs down from a fight with two towering loan-shark goons, which is about as close as he’ll ever come to playing against type. And he’s so good at barking orders during robberies—and subtly playing various hostile forces against one another—that I wish he had more chances to do that kind of thing.
Really, though, this movie is also a case of just about everyone involved punching outside their weight classes. The direction is about as confident as it gets, jumping around chronologically and weaving in this rich tapestry of characters: crooked cops, honest cops, slimy secret agents, small-time crooks, would-be black-power leaders with secret criminal lives, rich kids in over their heads, a silent and barely-there John Lennon. But director Roger Donaldson isn’t some great crime-film auteur. Instead, he’s the very definition of the Hollywood work-for-hire hack, with a resume that spans from Cocktail to Species to Dante’s Peak. So here we have this random guy pulling off the crazy-difficult task of juggling all these story lines while keeping the movie’s pace brisk, and he does it with panache.
I’m probably cheating a bit by writing about Statham’s least action-centric movie ever in an action-movie column. But sometimes a movie is so good that you have to bend your own goofy, self-imposed rules a bit. The Bank Job is sneaky-great not because it relies on the strengths of its star, but because it nearly avoids those strengths altogether.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.