Taking from the rich in Bandits and Iron Monkey.

Good manners are no excuse for criminal behavior," one bank manager says in Bandits. That might be true, but the other 122 minutes of the film would have you believe otherwise.

Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) are bank robbers with a better way. Deciding regular robbery is too risky (the guards, the tellers, the customers) the duo become ... the Sleepover Bandits! -- the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United States.

Sadly, it's not as exciting as it sounds. The evening before a heist, they show up on the doorstep of bank managers' houses, eat a surreal dinner with the families (never injuring even a hair on any hostage's head), and politely rob the bank the next morning, all the while becoming media darlings.

Told within the framework of a real-life crime television show, the story is a little uneven. Some things make perfect sense; others will leave viewers shaking their heads and saying, "Huh?" (especially a side story about a pretty hitchhiker and the duo's frontman). And the time element is downright confusing. During what seems to be a 12-hour period when Terry's getaway car runs out of gas and he's forced to bring a lonely housewife (Cate Blanchett) to the group's hideout, Joe has spent two weeks and all his money with some Norwegian girl. It's a problem for much of the movie; during any given scene, it's impossible to tell how much time has passed or how many banks have been robbed.

But the film's director, Barry Levinson, is not as concerned with that part of the plot, because the movie isn't so much a high-flying crime-spree adventure as a madcap menage a trois love story: an update of Bonnie and Clyde and Clyde's best friend. Both Joe and Terry fall for Blanchett's Kate and she, a case of Stockholm Syndrome just waiting to happen, says that together the two make the perfect man.

Luckily, in this parade of neuroses, the entire cast shines. Willis and Thornton are both at a comedic high point: Willis as a man who charms women out of their cars (as well as their pants) and Thornton as a hypochondriacal basket of nerves. Blanchett strikes the right chord of misery and hopefulness as a woman whose husband says her house misses her more than he does. And Troy Garity, the aforementioned frontman, rounds out the cast as a stuntman with a penchant for lighting himself on fire. The only question, really, is how these characters can stand being around each other for very long.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the movie is the way the "American people" (as well as the audience) take to Joe and Terry. When they show up at one house, the woman at the door says almost gleefully, "Hot damn, you're the boys from TV. Guess that makes me a hostage." At another robbery, a hostage says, "Bye, Joe. Bye, Terry," as they walk out the door with all the loot. They're celebrities. It's a theme that has shown up in other movies but never this pervasively -- or, at the same time, this understatedly. It just goes to show how accustomed we've gotten to reality programming. Good manners might not make criminal behavior excusable, but it sure makes you look better on TV.

-- Mary Cashiola

There is no question that since the arrival of action stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-fat, the Eastern martial-arts film is here to stay. But here's a simple request: Make the movies in their original languages with indigenous casts, writers, and directors. Don't let American influences screw the whole thing up a la Rush Hour.

A good example of pure martial-arts filmmaking is director Yuen Woo-ping's Iron Monkey. This re-release of the 1993 movie is already better than most of the action fare in today's market. And though there are some Western tweaks in the subtitles and in the music, this version still holds the original's vibe. The main reason: Unlike their Western counterparts, Asian filmmakers understand that their audiences are smarter than the average bowl of rice.

Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-guang) is the Robin Hood-esque Iron Monkey, a mischievous and benevolent superfighter bent on stealing from the rich and giving well, you know the story. Anyway, the evil Governor Cheng has his hands full with the Monkey's antics and forces young martial-arts master Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) to fight the Monkey and holds Wong's son, Fei-hong (Tsang Sze-man), as collateral. Okay, sure, it's a simple plot device; there's no argument that the movie's focus is the fighting.

At the same time, please understand that the similarity with American fare ends there. An example is the ubiquitous verbal sparring between combatants. The good guys don't content themselves with beating the crap out of opponents. A good martial artist must also have a quicker wit. There is also emphasis on achieving goals without the use of violence. The Monkey illustrates this by playing trickster to the governor and getting a bit of gold in the process.

The director uses food as an indicator of moral status. The bad guys want shark's fin soup. The good guys want fresh bread. The bad guys want their food served. The good guys cook their own or at least buy it themselves.

All this comes together in a well-told story, with each character shining in his or her own way. Dr. Yang's father was killed by corrupt officials and the Iron Monkey was born to avenge him. Dr. Yang's helper, Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), is no less than a reformed prostitute who lost her child. Little Fei-hong yearns for his strict father's love and becomes the Drunken Master Wong Fei-hong, one of the most famous characters in Chinese folklore. This movie isn't just about characters running around kicking each other. This movie is about people trying to prove something to themselves about those who look to them for guidance and about those who think that evil pays.

Bottom line: This movie is good for the soul. The good guys kick butt and the bad guys don't.

-- Chris Przybyszewski



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