" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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Bandits could’ve been just another buddy crime movie, but its clever dialogue and unique hook bring a refreshing take to otherwise familiar material.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Bruce and Billy Bob star with BlanchettJoe Blake (Bruce Willis, Unbreakable) and Terry Lee Collins (Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan) are two cons on the run following an improbable jailbreak. But then again, a lot of what they do is improbable. By being gentleman bandits for the year 2001, the dynamic duo gain nationwide fame as the “Sleepover Bandits.”

Their gimmick? Instead of going to the bank to rob it, they go to the house of the bank manager the night before and make their intent clear in front of the whole family. Demonstrating a strong sense of respect for the nuclear family, they charm their unwitting hosts and, after sleeping over, are escorted to the bank by the manager and rob it before the start of business.

Stuck in a Moment

Of course, there are many complications along the way. For one, Terry is a hypochondriac and he picks up the latest illnesses and ailments at the drop of a hat. Then there’s Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett, Oscar and Lucinda). She’s quite a trip herself, an unhappily married homemaker with a neglectful husband and a boring life. Ironically, when Blanchett finally makes her entrance, the movie kicks into high gear.

One of the movie’s funniest sequences finds Terry trying to steal Kate’s car, but she’s so despondent over her miserable life she won’t surrender it. It becomes a very humorous cat and mouse game of emotional control (or lack thereof) and mental dominance among two intellectual middleweights.

As for Joe, he can be a brooding heavy (as he says, “when you’re a well-oiled machine, you exude danger”) and also a suave gentleman. He smoothly talks women into letting him borrow their car after the latest heist – and as the car pulls away, the women are left to wonder what just happened.

Rounding out the main characters is Harvey Pollard (Troy Garity, Steal This Movie), a certifiable idiot with a fetish for women in pink cowboy boots. He may be stupid, but he’s Joe’s good friend and comes in handy as things develop.

Idiot Savants and Wonder Boys

While neither Joe nor Terry could be considered mental giants, they’re not really stupid either. That works to the film’s advantage in both comic sensibilities and story.

Instead of being just another “onesa” movie (onesa hypochondriac, onesa playboy), the screenplay by Harley Peyton (Less Than Zero) takes advantage of the characters’ quirks to offer some nice asides about life’s big picture. Yes, Joe is the handsome, adventurous asshole who can’t be tied down, and Terry is the sensitive, caring type that would seem to offer stability. But, as Kate observes, the two of them together make the perfect man.

Director Barry Levinson is back in fine form after a subdued couple of years. Having directed classic and timely movies like The Natural, Rain Man, and Wag the Dog, Levinson has played it low key of late, biding most of his time producing TV dramas such as The Beat.

For the movie’s first half hour, it seemed as if Levinson was rusty and had lost his touch yet again (after all, he’s also the director behind such astoundingly bad junk as Sphere and Disclosure).

Starting out with an all-too-familiar trash news TV show profiling the two robbers at the end of their banking career, the movie takes the slow road up front, investing in the characters and getting all the elements in place. It’s a relief to report that meticulous stage-setting leads to a very clever ruse that offers one of the niftiest cinematic payoffs this year.

Welcome back, Barry.