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Bandits: Special Edition

MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett

Written by Harley Peyton
Directed by Barry Levinson

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                   

There are two Barry Levinsons. Barry Levinson (Type A) was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He has directed several terrific and occasionally award-winning films, including a warm, funny, and nostalgic series of movies (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon, Liberty Heights) based on his youth, and a couple of near-epic blockbuster classics (The Natural, Rain Man) which are transformative in their rare intelligence and sensitivity.

However, Barry Levinson (Type B) was created in a petrie dish in a secret laboratory in Los Angeles. He is also a filmmaker, but of a simply atrocious string of bafflingly awful creations (Disclosure, Sphere, and — gaspToys) — movies that aren't merely bad, but bad ideas, and badly executed, and, well... bad.

In a rare act of partnership, the two Levinson models have collaborated on a bizarre hybrid project, resulting in the dull-yet-charming, clichéd-yet-engaging, ludicrous-but-tolerable robbers-on-the-run romp Bandits.

Bruce Willis, in a terrible long-haired wig he dare never wear again, stars as Joe, a suave convict with an appetite for makin' time and no patience for doin' time. As Joe, on a whim, effortlessly escapes from prison, he inadvertently takes fellow con Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) along for the ride. Terry is a mess: a neurotic, phobia-ridden hypochondriac with deep psychosomatic wrinkles to iron out. When this wacky pair hatches an innovative bank robbing scheme, their pursuit of criminal riches is an obvious recipe for playful antagonism and relentless banter, not to mention comical hijinks as they jack bank after bank.

To throw a monkey-business wrench in the works, add to this tittering twosome high-strung, flame-haired runaway housewife Kate (Cate Blanchett), who cheerfully embraces her new life of crime shacking up first with Joe and then with Terry, causing all kinds of ruckus in this ragtag gang. Oh, and she sings real bad. Hoo hoo hoo!

Bandits' screenplay, by Twin Peaks veteran Harley Peyton, is numbingly quirky and derivative, and when it's its not dealing in unnecessary clichés it's nearly incomprehensible. The heist schemes, while clever, stick close to the template, while the menage-a-trois farce is slapped around with flip disregard. An entire subplot featuring Joe and Terry's half-wit getaway driver (Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda) is bewilderingly superfluous, as is the annoying frame narration by a John Walsh-like TV crime show host.

Levinson's direction is manic-depressively erratic. While he hits the right tone on individual scenes he's unable to craft the parts into any kind of coherent thematic whole. Instead, he threads together a seemingly random series of alternately wacky and intimate scenes as two hours of hollow build-up to a clever climax which, while neat and satisfying in itself as a finale, is not enough to make sense of this overlong, scattered film. How rare that in this day of good movies spoiled by rotten endings, Levinson acutally contrives to make a poor film with a good ending. His choice of soundtrack, too, is odd; often pleasing as standalone songs but all the same jarringly out-of-place in texture and content with the film's text.

Now that sounds like one giant irredeemable mess, and it would be but for film's star threesome. Willis, a good movie star who has carried lesser pictures, plays it cool and gracefully rolls aside, ceding the picture to the dynamic and engrossing talents of Thornton and Blanchett. Thornton, for all of his off-screen weirdness, is one of the most engaging actors around, perfectly adept at both dramatic and comic roles, playing the latter here with vibrant personality and also graceful restraint. Blanchett continues her revelatory streak, cashing in yet another brilliant character performance, filling in humanity, sensitivity and intelligence where the screenwriter only provided a series of tics and some truly unspeakable dialogue (referring to Bonnie Tyler's song "Total Eclipse of the Heart," she proclaims, "It's an epic haiku to the complexity of love!"). Thornton and Blanchett are so charismatic in their performances that completely nonsensical scenes pass by without a blink, made to seem substantive by virtue of their very presence.

Dante Spinotti, as usual, turns in some stunning photography, and MGM's anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) on their Bandits: Special Edition DVD is gorgeous (there is a full-frame transfer on the flipside) alongside a crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. The disc includes four deleted scenes, the first two of which (7:15, 1:30) involve a subplot stemming from a bank heist, while the last two (:51, :52) contain superflous material generated by the gang's dissolution. None of the scenes have any particular value, but, tellingly, neither are they inferior to or less relevant than any scene left in the final cut. Also included is an alternate version of the coda that runs during the film's final credits, adding a provocative little twist, with optional commentary by Cate Blanchett. The best of the extra content are the two featurettes on board: Inside Bandits (20:43), with breezy cast and crew interviews, a little insight on the story's inspiration in reality, and with Levinson admitting that the material perplexed him, and Creating Scene 71 (5:57), an amusing closer look at the improvisational filming of the "bedroom scene" between Willis and Blanchett.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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