Stolen Kisses

The romance-comedy caper 'Bandits' gets a big, blurbable thumbs up! Sort of.

Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton give the words "star power" new meaning when they blast off in Bandits, the zaniest crime-fest this season! Well, OK, not really, but none of the movie companies ever quote me in their ads, and I'm getting tired of being ignored.

Actually, Bandits has its moments, mostly in the first half hour and final 15 minutes. They're good moments, and maybe enough to make the cringe-worthy middle section worth sitting through.

Basically, the story is about two middle-aged men who make an improbable jail break and then go on a bank-robbing spree down the Pacific coast. Now, if you're going to go on a bank-robbing spree, the Pacific coast is a pretty good place to do it, 'cause it's so darn purty. And if you're going to film purty things, well, you could do a lot worse than to hire Dante Spinotti to shoot them for you.

Spinotti is one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Hollywood, and not just because he's Italian. Such crappy movies as Nell, The Mirror Has Two Faces and Beaches have been made beautiful by Spinotti's skill, and mediocre movies like The Insider and Wonder Boys have received better reviews than they deserved because critics were so dazzled by Spinotti's rich palette. Basically, he's the perfect cinematographer for American movies, because he's so good at shooting shiny things, and we know how Americans are dazzled by shiny things.

The shiniest things he gets to shoot in Bandits are Bruce Willis and Cate Blanchett, who are both just drenched in superstardom. OK, not really, but again, somebody quote me in an ad, please?

Actually, Willis has really matured into a compelling actor. He knows exactly what his range is, and stays perfectly within it. This kind of restraint is admirable in an age where Pauly Shore is trying to break into "dramatic" films and Keanu Reeves is attempting to "act."

Willis' shtick is a sly smile and avuncular charm, along with a stellar sex appeal that will pack houses from coast to coast. OK, not really, but that one's sure to get me quoted. Still, he is kinda sexy in an old-man sort of way, which works here.

Blanchett plays the bored housewife who goes on the cross-country crime spree with Bruce and Billy Bob. While this role seems to have been pulled out of the central storytelling computer files where it is recycled every 568 days, Blanchett breathes glorious life into it, bursting off the screen with radiant beauty and a performance that could bring tears to the eyes of a statue.

OK, not really, but she does look great in the part. She has unnaturally flame-red hair and a midlife flooziness that somehow makes her housewifely appearance seem super-model hot.

Of course, when Billy Bob and Brucey pick up Cate, they both fall in love with her. I believe Jim Nabors put it best when he said, "Surprise surprise surprise!" The trite plot elements aren't really the problem with Bandits, though. In fact, they're hardly noticeable because the dialogue is so funny in the first third, and then the story gets so slow in the middle third, that the audience is too distracted by the weird feeling that their movie has been stolen to notice.

Luckily, things pick up in the end, which is one of those great, if a bit far-fetched, caper sequences that fans of great, if a bit far-fetched, caper sequences love so much. When the caper kicks in, the comedy that had left the film returns, as does a lot of the excitement. Er, I mean, "The ending will have you on the edge of your seat with its white-knuckle action and gut-busting good humor!"

The middle third is a real oddity, then, because it's barely funny at all. It seems like director Barry Levinson was so dazzled by Spinotti's ability to shoot sunsets and beaches that he just turned the film over to him for half an hour. All the jokes stop, the characters start to "develop" (i.e. spout expository dialogue) and the romance supplants every other element of the film.

Still, while it's not as consistently entertaining as some other films in the theaters, its high points are better than most of what you're going to see at the local 'plex, and its low points are at least well shot. Which is to say, "Bandits is as beautiful as a September sunset and funnier than a fish in the face!" You know, except for the middle part, which is kinda lame.

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