Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Bank Job and the Second Amendment

Per the recommendation of Sonny Bunch, I saw The Bank Job last night, and liked it. An interesting movie with a lot of different tones that made me wish I was British. (Anyone know what the Brits refer to the police as "the Old Bill"?)

But one thing in particular stuck out at me: The Bank Job would be unworkable as a story set in America.

Leave aside the fact that it's based on a true story which took place in London, obviously. The reason the The Bank Job couldn't be set in the states is because of guns. Access to firearms changes the dynamics of plotting, in ways which I'm not sure are particularly good.

Sonny makes the very astute point that the great joy of heist movies lays not just in the heist itself--we know it's going to be successful, otherwise we wouldn't have the movie. Rather, the interesting part is what happens after the heist--how the characters divide the loot, deal with each other, escape the law and/or other villains.

In superior heist movies, this becomes an exercise in systems engineering, where the robbers are trying to create a mechanism that will get their pursuers off their backs, allow them to keep some of the spoils, and often achieve the release of a hostage. What makes it interesting is that every party has something the other parties want and the parties have asymmetrical information and resources. The goal for the story is to devise an interesting way for the hero to solve what is essentially a big game theory scenario. That's exactly what happens in The Bank Job.

But here's the thing: Guns short-circuit the exercise. When the hero is trying to outsmart his pursuers, it often devolves into simply getting to the rendezvous point earlier and having an unseen team member working as a sniper. Any time the parties interact, there's the potential for gun-play, which often takes the place of plot mechanics. From the drive-in theater hand-off in Heat to the Tim Roth/Sam Jackson standoff in Pulp Fiction, guns make things simpler.

In That Bank Job, our hero arranges a complicated situation where he brings multiple parties together in a precise choreography in order to achieve his goals (I'm being oblique so as not to spoil things here), and the scene only works because the hero knows that none of the villains will be carrying guns. If everyone has a Mac 10 under their coat, then things have to be much simpler.

I'm sure that to some screenwriters, guns are a boon, because they simultaneously cut down on the amount of heavy-lifting you have to do with plot and up the stakes by placing everyone in immediate mortal peril. But that probably results in fewer interesting movies.

The Bank Job delivers they type of satisfying stuff you want from a heist movie. And I wouldn't mind seeing more gangster/heist films set in the U.K.'s recent past, if for no other reason than to clear the guns out of the way and force the writers to work a little harder.


Thomas said...

But the villains do have guns. That's made clear as they leave the station.

Anonymous said...

From: J.T.
Re: "Old Bill"
Take your pick:

1 Old Bill referred to King William IV who came to the throne in 1830, a year after the Metropolitan Police were founded.

2 The Custom of the Century a play of 1619 by John Fletcher has constables of the watch refer to themselves as "us peacemakers and all our bill of authority"

3 Old constables of the watch were sometimes nicknamed for the bills or billhooks they carried as weapons

4 Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia (Kaiser Bill) visited England about the time that police adopted the current shaped helmet in place of a top hat in 1864 and this association may be relevant.

5 The 'old bill' was in Victorian times a bill presumed to be presented by the police for a bribe to persuade them to turn a blind eye to some nefarious activity

6 New laws for the police start their life as bills in Parliament

7 'Old Bill' might refer to the music hall song "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey" also referring to the Old Bailey court.

8 In the 1860s a popular Sergeant Bill Smith at Limehouse was asked for as 'Old Bill'

9 Many police officers did wear authoritarian looking 'Old Bill' moustaches like Bruce Bairnsfather's famous WW1 cartoon character, the wily old soldier in the trenches.
10 In 1917, the government adopted Bairnsfather's cartoon character in posters and advertisements putting over wartime messages under the heading 'Old Bill says..' and for at least some of these, the figure was dressed in Special Constable's uniform.

10 The original vehicles used by the Flying Squad had registration plates with the letters BYL

11 The London County Council at one time registered all police, fire and ambulance vehicles with plates including letters BYL

12 According to the late author Robin Cook, 'old bill' is a racing term for an outsider or unknown quantity; hence a dodgy prospect for an illegal gambler's point of view.

This site says there are 13 definitions but strangely lists only the 12 above

Anonymous said...

Yes, the antagonists do have guns (as villains always do when guns are outlawed). But Statham and his lot don't, nor do they have easy recourse to get them in the sub-24 hour timeframe given them. This is why they have to organize a complicated setup with the police, MI5, a member of parliament, and a nasty pornographer who is handy with a sandblaster. If Statham et al could have simply gone to the store and picked up a cache of Glocks, I have to believe they would have avoided getting the police involved.


Anonymous said...

You would not want to be British. It's a violent and degraded society with far too much violence on a personal level. A level Americans would not put up with.

Really. Even the setting of the early 1970's in the film is far less violent than the Britain today. Set in today's UK, the criminals would find guns easily. The UK is awash in them (illegally imported from the Eastern European nations).

And personal violence from chavs is really just mind-boggling.