directed by Barry Levinson with Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett opens Oct. 12 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree and others
IN THE LAST 15 years, Bruce Willis has consistently delivered both from the cleanup spot (Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout) and as a pinch hitter (Mortal Thoughts, Pulp Fiction). So why is it still such a surprise when we actually enjoy one of the guy's pictures? If you can bear it, think back to Hudson Hawk, Armageddon, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Billy Bathgate. Willis' strikeouts—like Mark McGwire's—are not your everyday, A-for-effort mishaps; his bombs are massive, wild, almost sinful misappropriations of power.
The stickup comedy Bandits is such an offense, despite a defensive simplicity that begs, "Don't pick on me! I'm irrelevant!" Not so. The film can't rest with ceaselessly plagiarizing every halfway original heist flick in the Maltin movie guide. No, it has to befoul the considerable character-acting talents of Willis, Cate Blanchett, and Billy Bob Thornton for good measure.
The ensuing rip-off count is by no means comprehensive. Willis dons urinal-gray hair extensions as a suave, nonviolent bank robber (Out of Sight). He and hypochondriac partner Thornton enlist an eager dimwit (Bonnie and Clyde) as their getaway driver for a West Coast holdup spree. They haphazardly encounter Blanchett, an unfulfilled housewife with a death wish (Thelma & Louise) who gradually develops a crush on her insensitive pseudo captors (Buffalo '66). In the meantime, a hard-boiled tabloid host becomes dangerously obsessed with the three anti-heroes (Natural Born Killers). The crooks unspool "their side" on TV (Mad City) before crash landing in a spacious downtown bank surrounded by rabid cops and media (Dog Day Afternoon).
Unfortunately, Bandits' PG-13 sugar coating nullifies Willis' tongue, always his best asset. He and the quickly degenerating Oscar darling Thornton are obviously cupcakes next to Blanchett (Elizabeth), a serious actress who diligently does whatever is required—whatever the movie. (She can clearly play American; we saw that perhaps too clearly in The Gift.) But transforming her into a flighty off-key songbird who falls for Willis simply because he knows the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"? Can we even begin to quantify how insulting that is? Director Barry Levinson, who used to craft pictures like Rain Man and Bugsy, has hit the wall, big-time.
In an early draft, Bandits might've been a rambunctious collision among three enigmatic, profoundly confused adults. On screen, it's an implausible love triangle among insane, immature jerks. For God's sake—didn't we just endure Willis as The Kid only last year?