Plot aside -- way aside, as it's almost a nonissue in a film that telegraphs its final scenes during its opening moments -- Bandits is really about one thing: Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis's bald heads. As Joe Blake (Willis) and Terry Collins (Thornton), two bank-robbing fugitives in search of retirement and a life of endless sunsets south of the border, the actors sport wigs so tragic and haphazard they function as sight gags. The hairpieces come with their own laugh tracks. Joe's rug, flowingly unkempt, recalls Bill Murray's run-amok comb-over in Kingpin; Terry's looks like something that might awaken at the slightest noise. As the so-called Sleepover Bandits, who kidnap bank managers the night before a heist to cut down on such roadblocks as guards and customers, Joe and Terry further pile wig upon wig; their masquerades serve as almost heroic acts of redundancy. Willis layers on the disguises, hiding behind Foster Grants and mustaches. The reed-thin Thornton at various times looks not unlike Andy Warhol and Neil Young "from After the Horses?" as one confused and slightly amused hostage says.
Her reaction is ours: one of dazed bemusement. Bandits is delightful almost in spite of itself. It drags and sputters, gets distracted when it wants to get down and can no more find its rhythm than a drummer with both hands behind his back. Yet Thornton and Willis make for amiable protagonists, keeping things moving even when director Barry Levinson and writer Harley Peyton grind back into neutral. Such, perhaps, are the rewards of familiarity: The Armageddon co-stars bicker and banter like the old friends they are, fighting the way pals do when they can say anything without severing the bond. The two couldn't be more dissimilar. Joe's a slick, spontaneous hustler who breaks out of prison on a whim (using a concrete-mixing truck) and wastes his hard-stolen money on women; Terry's a brainy hypochondriac with a litany of fears, among them Charles Laughton, antique furniture and Benjamin Disraeli's hair. Separately, they're as useless as a leaky water pistol in a holdup; together, they're the perfect man, at least in the estimation of Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett, who appeared in Pushing Tin with Thornton), the bored, Bonnie Tyler-obsessed housewife who literally crashes into Terry and invites herself into the bank robbers' lives.
There is nothing at all novel about Bandits, which feels almost like a note-for-note remake of George Roy Hill's parodic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, down to its inclusion of the girl who hitches her wagon (or, in this case, her Mercedes-Benz) to two smirky outlaws. Kate's reasons for taking up with Terry and Joe nearly echo those of Katherine Ross's Etta, who tells Butch and Sundance she's "at the bottom of the pit" and in need of the "excitement" only they can provide. Bandits also feels not a little like Howard Franklin and Bill Murray's Quick Change, a far quirkier bank-robbery movie. Like both of these films, Bandits never shuts up: The cast is forced to speak double-time, lest the movie's two-hour running time double in length. Bandits too often feels as though it will never end; Levinson crams in a second finale even as the final credits crawl.
Such are the temptations when every other line is a setup or a punch line, but Peyton's talky script plays to Levinson's strengths; the director of Diner and Tin Men loves to listen in as grown men make small talk and pretend it's all so deep and meaningful. Terry does little more than bitch and moan about imagined ailments that clog his nostrils and paralyze his right side; he's a prat-falling whiner who has convinced himself he's a loser. Joe, his nose always buried in a book he doesn't quite understand, just nods and smirks and accepts his friend's gripes. Kate threatens their relationship far more than any cop: "She's an iceberg in search of the Titanic," Terry warns, not just because she could turn the boys in, but because her very existence ruins their dynamic.
The film is constructed in such a way that the bank holdups, which grow more brazen and silly once Joe and Terry become TV-created celebrities with catchy nicknames, are almost moot. After a while, they feel more like diversions than the destination, even though the entire film is told in flashback from the inside of a bank lobby. During these moments, Bandits plays like sitcom Steven Soderbergh: It literally begins at the end, as Terry and Joe await their fate during a bungled robbery of a Los Angeles bank, surrounded by cops. Before we've even become comfortable in our seats, TV true-crime reporter Darren Head (played by stand-up comic Bobby Slayton) informs us the two criminals died in a hail of gunfire. We're then left to witness their antics in retrospect as they boost banks up and down the Pacific Coast (the entire movie is so gorgeous it looks as though it were filmed from a postcard) and establish their infamy.
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The movie suffers most when it attempts to mock a culture that would make stars out of good-guy bad guys; it's enough to learn early on from Darren Head that they're "part Bonnie and Clyde, part Barnum and Bailey." A videotaped interview with Head is scattered throughout the movie, but its scant insights only gum up the works. Every time the movie builds up steam, Levinson stops to revel in the clever setup. Soderbergh's crime films (Out of Sight and The Limey) jump back and forth through the narrative to reveal the way memory deceives us; it becomes part of the con, the way we linger over the pleasurable and fast-forward through the painful. Levinson uses the same conceit only as empty gimmick. It serves no point, other than to cover a movie in an ill-fitting toupee it doesn't need.