"Bandits" (IMDb listing) is the type of picture that studios would love to describe as "edgy" or "quirky." Featuring characters with no moral compass, comedy that doesn't result in laughs and an off-kilter rhythm that will try even the most patient filmgoer. "Bandits" isn't edgy, it's edgeless. Directed rather carelessly by Barry Levinson (who hasn't made a decent film in some time now, considering his reputation), "Bandits" isn't monumentally bad. We're not talking "American Outlaws" or "Summer Catch" bad, but more of a disposable picture that will be long forgotten in the months ahead.
Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton star as Joe and Terry. Two recent prison escapees, the duo roam the northwest robbing banks in their own peculiar way: They take the bank manager hostage at his or her own home, then go to work with them in the morning to loot the empty bank. As their capers grow larger and more positive in the public's opinion, the two happen upon a lonely housewife named Kate (Cate Blanchett) who is at the end of her rope. The three take to the road (with occasional help from a mentally challenged stuntman played with alarming annoyance by Jane Fonda's scion Troy Garity), continuing the robberies until Kate complicates matters by falling in love with Joe and Terry. Creating a fracture between the friends, this new wrinkle in the threesome's relationship threatens to endanger the goal of the heists: to gather enough money to open a nightclub in Mexico.
"Bandits" is knee-deep in eccentricity. A supposed comedy (there's loads of slapstick), the picture revels in its too-cool-for-school attitude. Providing Levinson, Willis and Thornton a chance to switch gears after some recent serious work and work-related stress (Levinson's last film, "An Everlasting Piece," never made it past its single-screen New York and L.A. engagements last Oscar season), "Bandits" is trying very hard to entertain everyone. I personally didn't find any of the silliness funny. It plays like a bad "SNL" skit where each actor is disposing with the story and just trying to make the others in the same scene crack up.
Billy Bob Thornton is the worst offender, as he struggles to squeeze the most comic mileage out of his razor-thin character. "Bandits" was written by Harley Peyton ("Keys To Tulsa") and he gives each character one trait to play with for the entire film. Thornton has Terry's obsessive compulsiveness mixed with hypochondria. A gifted and successful dramatic actor, Thornton makes for a bad comedian. Suffice it to say, Thornton gives a completely obnoxious motor-mouth performance, rattling off character quirks in a brutal improvisational and scripted singsong. He overpowers everything and everyone in the film, trying to bend the unbendable script in his favor. It's exhausting.
All Willis and Blanchett can do is watch from afar and try to get in their own zingers when they can. Clad in a terrible wig, Willis seems to relish the chance to be funny again after starring in two somber M. Night Shyamalan epics. He is a better improviser than Thornton, but his Joe character is the strong, silent type. This makes Willis' stabs at one-liners all the more flat since we don't see it coming.
Having to act attracted to these two creepy characters, Blanchett certainly deserves the acting trophy out of the three. She really can't compete with Thornton's antics or Willis' stoicism, yet she's game to fool around a little more than I would expect from her. Levinson and Peyton don't quite know what to do with her character, leaving the momentum Blanchett makes on the role to quickly stall when the plot must be sated.
"Bandits" wants so desperately to be quirky that I couldn't help but draw parallels to another Levinson ego-trip, his 1992 flop "Toys." Though "Toys" was a more gigantic production with a far more profound idea at hand, it shares with "Bandits" a smug attitude of comic hierarchy. As if the foolishness onscreen is supposed to be enough to anchor the film in place of thought-out set pieces and actors more skilled to do something tangible with these simplistic parts.
Besides the comedy, I'm still trying to figure out just why America loves Joe and Terry for their crimes. Their "Robin Hood" crimes are not that at all. These two are stealing from the rich, but they're keeping the money for themselves. What kind of movie crooks are these? I'm still a little confused as to why Levinson wants the masses in the film (and us in the audience) to fall in love with two men that don't deserve any of their riches.
It's just too bad Levinson hired cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("Heat") to shoot "Bandits." Wisely, refreshingly and uniquely choosing northwestern locals to tell this story (but of course, the climax is in L.A.), Spinotti accomplishes some of his best work here in bringing out the lush greens of the forests and the misty mornings of the mountains. It's gorgeous photography and it doesn't help "Bandits" become a better film. It actually works against the final picture as it is damning evidence that "Bandits" could've been better.
Filmfodder Grade: D