In 1975, black rights activist Michael X, who modelled himself right down to his name on Malcolm X, but lacked the moral centre of his hero - Michael X was said to have been a pimp and drug-pusher - was hanged in Trinidad for two murders: a fellow member of his organisation and a British national, Gale Benson, daughter of a Conversative MP. Michael X's file in the National Archive is classified until 2054.
Roger Donaldson's 'The Bank Job', scripted by sit-com legends Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, pulls these two stories together in an entertaining 'what if?', factoring in a royal scandal, government manipulation, corrupt coppers, vicious villains and a brilliantly audacious heist.
The plot, briefly:
Car dealer Terry Leather (Jason Statham), needing ready cash to pay off a money lender whose goons are threatening all kind of nastiness, is approached by old flame Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) with some inside information on the alarm system at a branch of Lloyds. Terry, a bit player on the fringes of the underworld, assembles a gang of fellow small-timers and they come up with the aforementioned audacious scheme.
Backtrack: Martine's current squeeze, Home Office smoothie Tim Everett (Richard Lintern), has been charged by his boss, the decadent and degenerate Miles Urquhart (Peter Bowles), to recover photographs of an incriminating nature (a member of the Royal Famly in flagrante delecto) which thorn-in-the-side-of-the-establishment Michael X (Peter de Jersey) is using as a get-out-of-jail-free card. With Martine conveniently arrested for possession of a proscribed substance, Tim comes to her aid ... but with a condition attached.
Meanwhile, back in the criminal underworld: Michael X leaves his vice interests in the hands of East End blue-movie producer and strip-club owner Lew Vogel (David Suchet) while he returns to Trinidad to finalise the arrangements for a little drug running. Accompanying him and his entourage is Gale Benson (Hattie Morahan), who is also being controlled by Tim.
Martine and Gale are two operatives on the same mission: Martine is to find a bunch of suckers to do a bank job (her part: swipe the photos from Michael X's safety deposit box while Terry and co. are swiping everything else), whilst Gale is to infiltrate Michael's inner circle, again with retrieval of the photos the overriding priority.
Meanwhile, back at Lew Vogel's strip club: Lew's busily paying off any number of coppers who are on the take. Only, because he's as scrupulous with the paperwork as he's unscrupulous morally, Lew keeps detailed records in a ledger. Said ledger resides in a safety deposit box in guess which bank. Correcto-mundo. The same bank that Michael X uses. The same bank, in fact, that Sonia Bern (Sharon Maughan) uses.
Oh sorry, forgot to mention Sonia. She runs a high-class bordello frequented by Urquhart and various other cabinet minister, all of whom she has photographs and cine-film of. Filthy minded little beggars, these governmental types.
Did I say I was going to synopsise the plot briefly? No chance really, since the above pretty much accounts for just the first half of the film. How shall I describe the second half, particularly without giving too much away? Let's just say that various parties converge on Terry and his gang. Or, more bluntly: the shit hits the fan. The flippant, pacy, almost playful tone that characterises the planning and execution of the robbery takes a turn here; things get darker, thornier. The stakes are higher.
But Donaldson's direction never gets bogged down. The pace never flags. Clement and la Frenais' script deftly plots a narrative through-line that never gets sidetracked, despite the plethora of subplots and secondary characters. Statham proves a solid lead, graduating from the unkillable, monosyllabic characters he's generally associated with, while Burrows takes what could have been a one-dimensional femme fatale role and turns in a nuanced, world-weary performance. David Suchet has a whale of a time with Vogel; after thirty seconds, all thoughts of him as Hercule Poirot get thrown out of the window.
There's a lot to like about 'The Bank Job', not least its attention to detail - for a seedier, more defiantly cynical evocation of the 70s, you'd have to go back to the decade itself and the likes of 'The Sweeney' and 'Get Carter' - but, for me, the key to the film, its chief pleasure, is this: of all the dodgy bleeders that make up its dramatis personae, the nominal villains are the most fundamentally decent and honest characters.