The Bank Job
Starring: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays and David Suchet. Directed by Roger Donaldson. 110 min. Rated R.
The Bank Job, a new heist film from Australian-born New Zealand-based director Roger Donaldson is sorta-kinda-maybe based on a true story: One weekend in 1971, a gang dug a tunnel from a nearby store and broke into the vault of a Lloyds Bank branch on Baker Street in London. They looted safe deposit boxes and made off with (conservatively) half a million pounds.

Two aspects made this particular robbery notable. First, a ham radio operator stumbled across the walkie-talkie transmissions between the thieves in the vault and their lookout across the street. He alerted the police, who, after some initial skepticism, checked out 700 banks within several miles and found no obvious signs of a break-in.

Secondly — and more intriguing — after three days of major news coverage, the story suddenly disappeared altogether, suppressed by an order from the government.

The latter development inevitably provoked speculation. Such orders usually involve national security. Why would a plain-vanilla bank robbery justify a government-mandated press blackout?

Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe, Flushed Away, Bullshot Crummond) have spun an engaging fantasy around the few known facts. In their version, Terry (Jason Statham), occasional crook and owner of a garage, is seduced into planning the job through the efforts of former homey Martine (Saffron Burrows), who has escaped the old neighborhood and become a jetsetting model. When Martine refuses to elaborate on the source of her information, Terry is wary, but proceeds anyway.

What he doesn’t know is that Martine is being manipulated by Tim (Richard Lintern), a British intelligence operative. MI5 is clandestinely instigating the robbery in order to obtain the contents of a safe deposit box. Michael X (Peter de Jersey), a crime boss and slumlord who claims to be a black militant, has managed to avoid prosecution, because he has an envelope of photos of Princess Margaret boffing a secret lover. Martine is supposed to retrieve the envelope without looking inside; the authorities don’t really care about whatever else is in the vault.

Still, there is one factor that neither Terry’s gang nor MI5 have thought of, even though it is perfectly logical as soon as you think of it. As a result, the aftermath of the job becomes much more complicated and much uglier than anyone envisioned.

Donaldson has done a wide range of material — from the family drama of 1981’s Smash Palace, which kickstarted the New Zealand film industry, to adventure (The Bounty), political drama (Marie), thriller (No Way Out), comedy (Cadillac Man), sci-fi/horror (Species), and whatever the hell Cocktail is. The Bank Job is his first heist film — if you are generous enough to pretend that his ill-advised 1994 remake of The Getaway never happened.

It’s the thriller elements that seem to bring out the best in him, and The Bank Job, despite a fair amount of humor, is pretty much a straight-out thriller. He achieves just the right blend here of plot mechanics — how would they do it, why did it go wrong, how can they extricate themselves — and character development, with each member of Terry’s gang quickly and deftly delineated.

With Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and The Italian Job, Statham started out as the go-to supporting player for British heist films. He has since become a star in over-the-top action films like War, Crank and the Transporter series, so now he returns to the heist genre as the lead, with a character fully developed enough to let him stretch a little. Burrows does good work, as do Stephen Campbell Moore and Daniel Mays as Terry’s mates.

There may not be much to take home from The Bank Job, but it is a solid evening’s entertainment, which is not so common these days.