America's Most Wanted?
Although a year or two in production, Bandits easily could have become the formulaic Hollywood escapist fare rushed into production in the current climate of anxiety. One of the things that Hollywood does best is a light entertaining romp of a story, an outlaw action/adventure coupled with the romance of a love triangle. As such, Bandits fits the bill perfectly as diversionary fare for all that ails us.
The ballad of Joe and Terry (the country song title equivalent) is launched effectively with an impromptu prison break. Joe, played with all the rapscallion charm that Bruce Willis has to offer, is listening to Terry's litany of hypochondriacal symptoms in the prison yard when he sees an opportunity for escape and boldly takes it. Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) tags along, not so much with the consciousness of choice but rather like a person with his shirtsleeve stuck in the safety harness of a roller coaster.
Once on the outside, and after a series of smooth and polite carjackings, our amiable buddies begin a terrific series of bank robberies. Rather than run the risk of mid-day heists and all the unknowables this entails, Joe and Terry scout out the bank managers and kidnap them the night before by sleeping over in their house (often with their wife and kids). The next morning they escort their captives to the bank prior to opening and clean out the vaults and escape before the morning mists have had a chance to settle.
It is easy to sympathize with our two unlikely heroes. Billy Bob Thornton is in rare form as the sometimes stuttering, always twitching phobic. His manias are many but as written by Harley Peyton, Terry never crosses the line into pathos. Bruce Willis does what we've come to appreciate the most, and that is simply to play Bruce Willis. Like Cary Grant or even Steve McQueen, Willis is nothing if not consistent. The swaggering, wisecrakin' machismo mixed with just enough forlorn puppy dog confusion is harnessed to perfection. What is surprising, however, is that Thornton steals nearly every scene that the two share. But credit Willis, he's comfortable in a supporting capacity here.
Along their happy trails enters our ingénue, Kate, a terribly unhappy wife who's just unstable enough to attract both of our misfits. And Kate, with her confusion and appetite for adventure and novelty, finds a certain soul mate identity in both of the bickering fugitives. As consistent as Willis has been in a longer career, Cate Blanchett is proving to be equally diverse. In her turn as the ill-advised love interest, Blanchett nails every scene and ties Thornton for the emotional center of the film.
As their exploits unfold, the three surface on the radar screens of an America's Most Wanted type television show. Quite unwittingly, they become celebrities after a fashion; so much so, in fact, that the disguises that they don for their capers are rendered quite useless.
There are many narrative templates in use in the construction of the relationships that unfold. Perhaps the most obvious is that of Felix and Oscar, the pairing of the macho, doer/action taker with the internal/neurotic over-thinker. Embodied by Willis and Thornton, the premise is buoyed along with uncharacteristic charm and bravado. Add to the plot stew a dash of Thelma and Louise, a soupçon of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a de-glazing splash of Natural Born Killers and a plot twist from FX (no, not the Fox syndication cable channel, but rather the 1986 special effects murder mystery with Bryan Brown and Brian Dennehy) and you get the rollicking narrative adventure ride.
As pleasant and passable as the sum total of the film turns out to be, there is a sluggishness that is simply inexcusable. For instance, the thieves pace themselves by staging the heists every two weeks. What this does for the plot is allow the characters to evolve between action, nominally a good thing. What it also does, unfortunately, is slow the pace from a sprint to a long distance jog, with intermittent bursts of energy. The other egregious speed bump along the road to truer filmic satisfaction is that the first three quarters of the film is told in flashback form. Although this narrative device does set up a nifty little plot twist that is ultimately satisfying, it doesn't fully allow audience members to kick back and entirely enjoy the ride. It would have been plenty of fun just to be in the back seat of their careening adventures as they blaze a trail down the west coast from Oregon to Southern California, leaving broken vaults and hearts in their wake.
One can only lay blame for these missteps on the door jam of Screenwriter Peyton and Director Barry Levinson. But the stellar and triumphant Willis, Thornton and Blanchett rise above the muck and succeed in spite rather than because of the talents of their behind-the-lens cohorts. Should we be a tad disappointed? Yes. Should we say "Hooray for Hollywood" nonetheless? Absolutely!