On this week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast, we covered the subject of movies “based on a true story”. We discussed a number of films which have made this claim and debated how “true” some of them really were. One of the most unique films of recent memory which as the “based on a true story” moniker is the 2008 heist thriller, The Bank Job. Here’s a story that we know is based on an event which actually happened, but there’s way to really verify the accuracy of what we’re seeing. The Bank Job tells the story of the infamous Baker Street Robbery from September 11, 1971, where a group of thieves tunneled into Lloyds Bank in central London and robbed the safety deposit boxes. These events have always been shrouded in a cloud of mystery because no one knows for certain what was stolen, who the thieves were, and if they got away with it. Different sources will tell you different stories about whether or not those responsible were brought to justice for the crime. Rumours abounded that this heist compelled the British government to issue a D-Notice, which is an official request to news editors to not publish or broadcast certain stories for reasons of national security. It’s been debated whether or not this D-Notice actually went through, but it would explain why details about the aftermath of the Baker Street Robbery are so murky. Whatever the case, the rumour about the D-Notice gave the makers of The Bank Job a lot of leverage with using dramatic license because even though many of the events in this film may not be true, it would be difficult to actually prove it.
The Bank Job opens with secret photographs being taken of a prominent figure in a sexually compromising situation, and it s soon revealed that this figure is Princess Margaret. The man responsible for these photos is a powerful militant gangster named Michael X (Peter de Jersey), who plans to use them as blackmail bait in order to avoid a prison sentence. Michael X is keeping these photos in a safety deposit box at Lloyds Bank and MI5 is assigned the task of recovering them. An ambitious MI5 operative named Tim Everett (Richard Lintern) enlists the services of a woman named Martine Love (Saffron Bufrows) to assemble a crew to stage a robbery of the safety deposit boxes in Lloyds Bank. This way, MI5 can seize Michael X’s compromising photos and the public will just assume this was a routine heist. Martine approaches an old flame named Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a former thief who has gone straight. Terry now has a family and is running his own car dealership, but because he is in debt to a dangerous loan shark, he desperately needs the money, so he contacts his old criminal friends to pull off the heist. The crew’s plan is to lease a building close to Lloyds Bank and tunnel underground into their vault. They are unaware that MI5 is shadowing their every move, but since they are not officially sanctioning this operation, MI5 cannot intervene should the crew run into any trouble with the police.
The actual heist is just the tip of the iceberg in this very convoluted storyline. It s actually amazing that the filmmakers are able to cram so much material into 110 minutes. There are also subplots about an undercover female spy in Michael X’s organization, and a brothel which is keeping compromising photos of prominent government officials inside their own safety deposit box. Terry’s crew also finds itself in deep trouble when it turns out that a local gangster/porn baron named Lew Vogel (David Suchet) has been keeping a ledger of his dealings with corrupt police officers in his safety deposit box as well. It’s up to Terry to dream up a solution that will keep him and his crew out of prison, and save them from getting killed. At the end of the film, there’s a disclaimer that “names have been changed to protect the guilty”, so there’s no way of knowing for sure how many of the events which take place in the film are actually true. The producers of The Bank Job do claim they had an inside source who provided them with a lot of the info which is depicted here. Whether you believe this film is truthful or not, that still doesn’t change the fact that The Bank Job is a very entertaining heist picture. Director Roger Donaldson has a fairly diverse and uneven body of work, but when he’s at his best (such as with No Way Out and Thirteen Days), he knows how to make a damn fine thriller. In spite of the very complicated narrative, Donaldson keeps the story moving at a brisk pace and there’s rarely a moment when the viewer is confused about what’s going on.
Even though The Bank Job opened to good reviews, it was only a modest hit at the box office and it s pretty easy to see why it remains underrated: could they have possibly found a more generic title for this film?! On the surface, The Bank Job just sounds like your average, run-of-the mill bank robbery picture and gives little indication of the story’s espionage and political intrigue. The presence of Jason Statham probably made people think this was going to be just a routine action picture and while there is some action in The Bank Job, it’s more plot and character-driven. Statham is as likable as always as Terry Leather, and he’s ably supported by a solid cast of British character actors. It could be easy to lose track of who everyone is in a complicated story like this, but thankfully, the characters here are all very distinctive. So how does The Bank Job measure up amongst the ranks of “based on a true story” movies? Well, honestly, this is one case where the “based on a true story” moniker greatly enhances the film. If this story was simply a complete work of fiction, The Bank Job would still be an entertaining caper film, but might be pretty forgettable overall. However, knowing that the events depicted on screen might have actually happened gives the film an extra layer of fascination. The Bank Job could have easily just been a story about the Baker Street Robbery, but the filmmakers were a lot more ambitious than that. It’s easy to believe that no screenwriter could have dreamed up some of this stuff on their own since, as they say, truth is much stranger than fiction.