Dir. Roger Donaldson
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

Roger Donaldson’s nimble thriller The Bank Job presents a novel predicament. It’s about a conflict between criminals and lowlifes — and the innocent bank robbers caught in the middle. Alright, innocent is a stretch, but you’ll agree that the robbers, at worst pawns of a power struggle more insidiously contrived than they could conceive of, are the least corrupt of the crooks. It is said there is honor among thieves; here, the thieves are the only ones with any honor.

Jason Statham is the star, in a role that requires more than the characteristic flexing of his muscles. He plays Terry Leather, a small-time crook who we first see supervising the doctoring of used car odometers. He is foolish and short-sighted, and he is in debt to an unsavory character, but we can sympathize with his motives. He has a wife, Wendy (Keeley Hawes), and two daughters who look as though they were cloned from Reese Witherspoon. He wants to give them a life free of debt and unsavory characters.

In walks Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), a former acquaintance who has designs on a bank robbery and invites Terry to lead the operation. For “old times’ sake,” she says, but of course there is more between them than that.

Once the groundwork is laid, the story explodes its scope. We’re introduced to members of MI-6, a black-power radical named Michael X (Peter De Jersey), and members of a corrupt police department. The government wants to bring Michael X to justice, but he keeps incriminating photos of Princess Margaret as blackmail. Other characters appear whose involvement in the plot is at first unknown: the madam of a brothel that serves high-powered politicos, and a pornographer, Lew Vogel (David Suchet), with secrets to hide. There are more that seventy speaking roles, and perhaps as many agendas.

The breakneck pacing of these intersecting conspiracies leads to some confusion if you’re not fast on your feet, but you’ll get the general idea, even if you’re fuzzy on some of the details. What you need to know: unbeknownst to them, Terry and his gang are stealing the Princess Margaret photos for MI-6, but their heist — and the other secrets they steal — puts them at odds with a number of criminals, spies, and politicians. The irony is that the purpose of the heist has nothing to do with the perpetrators, but they find themselves stuck in the middle, trying to survive it.

The film is based on the true story of the 1971 Baker Street Robbery in London. Many of the details have meticulous accuracy, while others are based on supposition and dramatic license. But regardless of its ratio of truth to fiction, it is entirely plausible as a thriller. The chaos that unfolds is organic. Behavior is rooted in character. And our protagonists are not superhuman schemers, but reasonably smart people contending with their circumstances one setback at a time.

Donaldson was the director of Thirteen Days, another true story turned high-stakes thriller — in that case, the Cuban Missile Crisis. This film has the same urgency. The editor is John Gilbert, who is largely responsible for the film’s propulsive pace and keeping orderly the winding screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais, which is about as clear and concise as we could ask of a screenplay with so many conspirators and conspiracies. Most heist movies have a simple motive; this one has a dozen.