Bandits (2001) – dir. Barry Levinson

I take a lot of issue with postmodernism. This includes satire, meta-humor, or anything rooted in nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. Few stories in this vein can get passed their own self-satisfaction, and exist simply to exist. Deconstruction, or at least truth without insight, is meaningless if a story has nothing to put in place of what is being taken apart. If all a story can do is remind us of the presence of some earlier work for the sake thereof, that’s wasteful storytelling. This is partially why the Scary Movie franchise is so creatively bankrupt, and why I, personally, can never love properties like La La Land or Stranger Things. Successful postmodern storytelling can be found in shows like Community or Rick and Morty–both of which use reference-based humor and narrative structure for character narrative–but little else even tries this.

Bandits feels like a reaction to Hollywood movies. A post-Tarantino crime picture with nods to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bonnie and Clyde, It Happened One Night, Rebel Without a Cause, and Broadcast News, Bandits is wholly preoccupied with narrative expectations. At the center of the film are two criminals: Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy Bob Thornton), an odd couple who break out of prison, in one of the more patience-testing suspensions of disbelief, and begin a string of bank robberies which make them infamous. As we come to learn, the two of them are less interested in simply the thrill of wrongdoing, but would rather live out their lives as Sam Peckinpah types, fleeing to Mexico for a richer, simpler life. They’re self-described Robin Hood types, stealing from back from a government that takes unjustly from the American people–an ideology that is sudden and hollow in equal measure.

A very clunky half-hour into Joe and Terry’s string of low-key heists, Bandits comes to life with the introduction of Kate (Cate Blanchett): A bored housewife who loves Bonnie Tyler, with a husband who ignores her at every turn, under the guise of the most passive tenderness imaginable. This is the thin context with which Kate is motivated to join up with Joe and Terry, after hitting Terry with her car as he’s on his way to meet at a safe house with Joe. That first encounter is easily the best, most joyous scene of Bandits. Part of this is the writing and direction, which thrive on a rapturous energy and high-octane rhythm. Really though, the scene lives and dies on the chemistry of Thornton and Blanchett–the former of which gives another great, yet completely different performance in another 2001 film The Man Who Wasn’t There. Thornton and Blanchett are among the best working actors of their generation, elevating stock characters into dynamic, compelling individuals.

Which leads into the trickier aspects of Bandits: The love triangle. Specifically, the problem of Bruce Willis. As much fun as Thornton and Blanchett are–and as much as the film realizes this, seeing as we get way more time devoted to them building a rapport than we do with Joe and Kate–Joe is an equal part of this equation, with the movie going so far as to establish a polyamorous relationship between Joe, Terry, and Kate. As hard as Levinson tries, Bruce Willis does not fit into this film. So many filmmakers have tried to recapture Willis as David Addison, the P.I. from Moonlighting, who is as charming and likable as Bandits wants Joe to be, but have never done successfully. Willis is ostensibly the hedonistic id to hypochondriac Terry’s superego–with Kate not so much existing in the middle as she does on both ends of that particular spectrum. And while the writing might bear this out, Willis cannot sell himself with the same fluidity as his co-stars. Everything he does on screen is oddly distracting. Willis isn’t bad; he just doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, which the film seems to realize when Willis is fairly absent in the back half. Yet, whenever he’s on screen with Blanchett, their romance is believable. By no means are Willis and Blanchett Gable and Colbert, or even Grant and Arthur. Perhaps Joe has a stoic blankness to him that makes Kate’s livelier tendencies a strong foil for him. Maybe Willis is made better by Blanchett’s clear commitment to the role. Whatever the case, they are quite lovely together.

The triangle is satisfying thematically, because we get a glimpse of the artistic process. We see how Kate falls into Joe and Terry’s schemes, how this breeds conflict, and how they use their experiences and feelings about Kate to perpetuate a narrative of their own creation–somewhat like using half-baked anti-establishment attitudes to justify stealing. Similarly, we get Joe’s story of his brother dying of a brain tumor, for which Terry starts developing symptoms. We later learn that Joe was messing with Terry, who is only psychosomatically affected. The film demonstrates that these two stand-ins for storytellers can only be effective if they know how to be manipulative, which is one of the more cogent points of Bandits. Filmmaking is manipulation. The way we see and hear images presented as story or philosophy? Bandits is keyed into this. As many cars as we see them swap out, or as complicated as their escape routes might be from a job, that one diversion is the one that sticks.

These are the only thread that truly carry in Bandits. As big as the media frenzy gets for the team, as many mirrors are on camera to let us know that everyone is always being watched, and as many tricks as the film uses to keep us intertwined, none of that really adds up to much. Barry Levinson is not a stranger to stories about public image or perception. Films like Wag the Dog, Envy, Man of the Year, You Don’t Know Jack, and The Wizard of Lies deal with these ideas head on. Clearly, communicating information on a large scale interests him. Few of them work very well. Bandits is certainly in line with the same subjects. Sometimes, though, the film undermines itself for no clear reason. The ending, in particular, is frustrating to analyze. As predictable as endings usually are, the fun of any conclusion is watching how events lead to that point. Bandits deliberately sets us up to watch for the film’s climax, only to tip its hand at the last second, and one can’t help but feel cheated, like Levinson couldn’t be bothered to tidy up his own grand finale. He can’t gracefully show us his secrets, so he does so in the most bold-faced way possible.

Bandits is, in many ways, a missed opportunity. A film that commits to so many of the wrong turns and moments, a film with as limp of a co-lead as possible, and a film that is so messy, this could have been great. Bandits is still a lot of fun, even when that fun is a little forced–like trying to casually have dinner with one’s home invaders. The movie has two terrific performances, and some truly interesting ideas that aren’t nearly as fleshed out as they could be. Maybe Bandits is just a little too ambitious. Maybe if this were culled down to a few strong threads–cut the everything with Harvey and January Jones, for starters–or if the movie was more selective about set pieces–the only really thrilling one comes from the robbery where the manager is already expecting them–Bandits would be great. Instead, Bandits is a dissection whose aim is sloppy, and that doesn’t have as much to say as the film thinks, despite so much promise.

Rating – 5.8/10

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