At the very least, a movie combining the talents of Barry Levinson, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett ought to be watchable. But Bandits, in which Willis and Thornton play a pair of bank robbers who both fall for Blanchett, is barely that. Endless, repetitive, and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, Bandits succeeds only in stealing two hours of precious time.
Willis and Thornton play Joe and Terry, escaped cons who become notorious as the "Sleepover Bandits." The nickname comes from their habit of showing up at a bank manager’s house the evening before a planned heist, spending the night, then accompanying the manager to work in the morning. That way, they can accomplish their thievery with a minimum of interference from customers or security personnel. Thornton wears a different ridiculous hairpiece for each robbery, presumably to conceal his identity. To make matters more confusing, Willis wears the same silly wig throughout, but we’re apparently meant to construe it as his character’s actual hair.
Everything changes when the duo takes bored suburban housewife Kate (Blanchett) hostage during a hasty getaway. Kate falls first for both the brawn (Joe), then for the brains (Terry), before finally deciding she will not make a decision between them. This doesn’t go over too well with the partners in crime, but they’ve got other pressing problems to deal with – such as the fact that, despite their brilliant disguises, the police have identified the Sleepover Bandits and are hot on their trail. There are car chases and gun battles and a twist near the end that everybody and their grandmother will see coming ninety minutes before it happens.
Why Kate would fall for either of these losers, let alone both of them, is a question the movie never adequately answers. His bad rug is the tip-off that Willis is playing another one of his smirky wise-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold roles. To be fair, Harley Peyton’s anemic script provides him little reason to do otherwise. Thornton’s Terry, meanwhile, is a raging hypochondriac, a conceit that amuses at first but grows tedious long before the final credits roll. Thornton is working hard, though, and the few laughs the movie generates are all his. Blanchett suffers the most indignities; her character’s indecision plays as mere ditzyness, and even worse, she is forced to sing along with not one but two Bonnie Tyler power ballads of the 80’s.
Barry Levinson likes to keep busy. Jumping restlessly between genres – from lavish sci-fi spectacle (Sphere) to down-and-dirty political satire (Wag the Dog) to quirky Irish comedy (An Everlasting Piece) – the director has completed seven features in the past five years alone. But his scattershot approach to choosing his subject matter has resulted in a career of diminishing returns. His work has grown increasingly impersonal, and he seems to struggle to find ways of spicing up tired material. Here he’s imposed an extraneous framing device: an America’s Most Wanted-type television show that’s been granted an exclusive interview with the Sleepover Bandits, clips from which are peppered throughout the movie. These bits seem improvised, but do little to flesh out the characters of Joe and Terry even as they pad the already excessive running time. Leaving these scenes on the cutting room floor would have been a good idea; leaving the entire movie there would have been a better one.