Don’t let its bland title fool you. “Bandit”, from Canadian director Allan Ungar, is a nimble and multi-faceted heist movie built around a genuinely outrageous true story. The film is an adaptation of Ed Arnold and Robert Knuckle’s 1996 book about the real-life story of Gilbert Galvan Jr. aka The Flying Bandit. Galvan Jr. was a criminal who robbed a total off 59 banks and jewelry stores across Canada over a three year period. He holds the record for the most consecutive successful robberies in Canadian history (I guess the keep stats for those things).
From a script by Kraig Wenman, “Bandit” is a fascinating stew of genres. It’s a biographical drama, a lighthearted crime caper, a straight heist film, and even a heartfelt love story all wrapped into one surprisingly cohesive whole. And it’s led by Josh Duhamel who is finally given some material that lets him show what he can do.
The movie opens with Gilbert Galvan Jr. (Duhamel) setting up his own story which plays out during the shifting 1980s. Through narration and a little self-aware fourth wall breaking, the good-natured Galvan ends up sentenced to 18 months in a Michigan prison for check fraud. Six months into his sentence he busts out and makes his way across the border into Canada.
Once in Ottawa, Galvan assumes the name Robert Whiteman and even entertains going straight. He gets a low-paying job selling ice cream and even hits it off with a beautiful young woman named Andrea (Elisha Cuthbert) who works at a church-ran hostel. But in this particular story, once a criminal always a criminal. Galvan/Robert begins casing area banks, noting their small staffs and lax security. Inevitably robbing them comes next, and it proves to be something Robert is really good at.
But he can’t just keep hitting the same local banks, so Robert looks to take his gig nationwide. To do so he needs some backing. He connects with Ottawa’s biggest crime boss, Tommy Kay (Mel Gibson) who fronts Robert with the initial cash (for a small cut of each score of course). From there Gilbert Galvan Jr./ Robert Wiseman begins flying all across Canada, successfully pulling bank jobs and taking in loads of cash. During this time he and Andrea move in together. He tells her he’s gotten a job as a traveling “security analyst”. Actually he’s on his way to becoming the most prolific bank robber in Canada’s history.
Robert’s association with Tommy eventually puts him on the radar of a frustrated police detective named John Snydes (Néstor Carbonell). He runs an underfunded task force called Project Café that’s focused on taking down Tommy’s enterprise. With all of his key pieces on the board, Ungar begins moving them around at a breezy pace, keeping us engaged mostly through the charm-soaked performance of its star, Duhamel.
While this is certainly a crime story, “Bandit” is sure to surprise people with its heart and almost kid-like playfulness. Take the dashes of good humor sprinkled all throughout the movie. They’re seen mostly during the heist sequences, from Robert’s numerous zany disguises to his innate congeniality (he routinely encourages bank tellers with a soft-spoken and heartfelt “You did great”). These scenes sell because of the good-looking, easy-going Duhamel who not only makes you laugh, but slyly has us rooting for him as well.
As normal for stories like this, things begin to tense up in the final act. It’s one of those cases where you see the ending coming from a mile away, yet Ungar’s crisp direction keeps us engaged. The lone issue is with Galvan/Robert as a character. Yes he’s charming, witty, and whip-smart. But we never really get to know him. Aside from his genuine love for Andrea, our connection to him is always surface-level. It’s a nagging problem that keeps the movie from being as compelling as it otherwise might have been. Yet, much like the character he plays, Duhamel has a way of drawing us in with his infectious charisma. “Bandit” opens tomorrow in select theaters and on VOD.