**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
starring Bruce Willis, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Troy Garity
screenplay by Harley Peyton
directed by Barry Levinson
by Walter Chaw Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) break out of an Oregon prison and begin robbing banks while making their way down the west coast to an idealized Acapulco. Along the way, they pick up Joe's dimwit wannabe stuntman cousin Phil (Anthony Burch) to act as getaway driver, and Kate (Cate Blanchett), an unbalanced passerby who becomes intoxicated by life on the lam. Shunning the more usual tactic of ski masks and gun waving, Joe and Terry take the banks' presidents and their families hostage the night before heists, earning them the nickname "The Sleepover Bandits." In the schizophrenically sprawling and tight script, these hold-ups share time with a developing love triangle between Joe, Terry, and Kate, and, less successfully, a framing story involving an "America's Most Wanted"-like host.
A cross between Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, and director Barry Levinson's own Rain Man, Bandits is a genial road movie that doesn't particularly fail at anything despite confusion about where to focus its energies. It has so many plates spinning that one or two are bound to drop--that none actually shatter on the floor is a testament to Levinson's over-familiarity with material like this and his veteran cast's collection of twitches and eccentric outbursts. It's a gimmick film masquerading as a light character study (where Rain Man was a gimmick film masquerading as a Best Picture winner), and the desperation of its last ten minutes (which unfortunately make Bandits an honorary second sequel to Robert Mandel's F/X) points to problems in concept that could apparently only be resolved through car chases, shooting, and explosions.
At heart, Bandits is a thirtysomething fantasy reflecting the disillusionment with responsibility from which Generation X suffers. A great film detailing just such a countercultural malaise--apprehensive slackers entering into the latter half of their lives with their collection of bad Eighties music in tow--is inherent in the subtext of Bandits: a new rejection of marriage, health, institutions, tradition, responsibility. But Levinson is too firmly entrenched in the mainstream to trust such an indie conceit, falling back on shameless pyrotechnics. The shift in focus away from the characters is all the more puzzling for the quality of the ensemble, whose interplay is expert and chemical. Blanchett excels in her role, that of an ordinary girl just a little bit smarter than her situation; Bruce Willis plays with and against his action hero persona wryly and compassionately; and Billy Bob Thornton inhabits the stammering neurotic with pitch-perfect earnestness.
Thanks to a terrific soundtrack that continues the filmmaker's obsession with archiving the American experience (including a gratuitous abuse of Bonnie Tyler), a trio of excellent performances, and enough good moments to smooth the corners of its pacing and narrative problems, Bandits is diverting for long stretches and occasionally better than that. It's just too bad that its considerable heart is so at odds with its trifle of a head.
MGM's track record for producing outstanding Special Edition DVDs continues unabated with Bandits, though this is the first deluxe package from a major studio in some time to not include a feature-length commentary track. (As a critic who's listened to more than his fair share this week alone, that's kind of a blessing, but as a connoisseur I feel a little cheated.) Cate Blanchett did phone in a minute's worth of optional comments for an alternate ending that was her idea--and a pretty good one at that, if something audiences would've ultimately resented.
The four other deleted scenes were presumably cut to keep the story on track--there is no one to talk us through these; as a quartet, they basically add up to an extra subplot involving the mistress of the Sleepover Bandits' first captive. (Willis is especially melancholy in these and in the final omission, a brief monologue about how far he would travel on foot for the Cate Blanchett character.) "Inside Bandits" recounts the history of the production (the film is loosely based on a pair of outlaws who thrived in the early-1970s) with interviews conducted during production, at the Bandits junket, and specifically for this DVD. We discover that Willis was originally cast in Thornton's role, with Val Kilmer as his macho partner (Kilmer's exit from the project is mentioned in cryptic terms); that's a very different movie, indeed.
Better still is "Creating Scene 71," a meaty featurette even at a mere six minutes in which Levinson and co. break down Willis's improv-heavy, It Happened One Night-inspired seduction of the vulnerable Kate. (When it's over, you're given the option to jump straight to scene 71 to refresh your memory of how it turned out.) Trailers for Bandits, Windtalkers, Hart's War (the latter two in DD 5.1), the Rocky SE DVD, and the Bandits soundtrack round out the dual-sided, dual-layered disc. Lovely 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and pan-and-scan transfers are on opposite sides of the platter; some mild banding in low-lit shots aside, the image does Dante Spinotti's tastefully stylized cinematography proud. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix gives speakers a workout during the cement truck prison break and in the hectic climax, where a couple of shotgun blasts sound authentically, unsettlingly present. Originally published: March 31, 2002.