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BANDITS

by: Michael Dequina

Bruce Willis may stand ahead of the pack on the poster for Bandits, but the real stars of Barry Levinson's comedy are standing right behind: Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett. Without this Oscar-nominated (or, in the case of Thornton, also Oscar-winning) duo, it would be difficult to imagine this caper being such a spirited screwball romp.

This is not to say that Willis does not hold up his end of the film as Joe Blake, the tough guy convict who sets all of the action in motion by making a daring prison break for which fellow inmate Terry Collins (Thornton) happens to be along for the ride. As the fugitive pair grab headlines on the lam as the "sleepover bandits" who take bank managers (and their families) hostage the night before each heist, Willis is reliably stoic as the macho straight man of the piece. But he cannot help but come off as flat compared to Thornton's hilarious Terry, whose brainy self-image is contradicted by his ridiculously strong neuroses, particularly over his health.

Bandits gets an added jolt of manic energy with the entrance of Kate Wheeler (Blanchett), a housewife who is memorably introduced while she dances and cooks to the rampaging strains of Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero." But it's Tyler's other big early '80s hit, the melodramatic power ballad "Total Eclipse of the Heart," that's Kate's anthem, and after being dissed one time too many by her cold husband, Kate drives off in a bawling, "Eclipse"-warbling huff--and ends up literally running into Terry. She becomes his and Joe's hostage, but after each guy spends some quality time with this fiery female, a classic triangle is born.

It's a predictable development, but the three stars work so well together that even the most contrived dramatic developments are fun to watch. Thornton is the film's centerpiece in more ways than one; not only is his eccentric character the film's comic heart, his built-in familiarity with both of his co-stars fuels the trio's easygoing chemistry. He and Armageddon cohort Willis make an amiable pair, but Thornton really comes to life with Blanchett, who is such a chameleon it's easy to forget that she had worked with him previously on Pushing Tin. As in that film, Blanchett shows natural flair for comedy, handling slapstick and zingers with equal aplomb.

Unfortunate it is, then, that Levinson and writer Harley Peyton at times threaten to undermine the cast's commendable efforts. Levinson's pacing sometimes goes slack, and the two-hour-plus run time is too strongly felt; a clumsy framing device is more of an unnecessary distraction instead of an enhancement, not to mention it telegraphs some of the film's closing twists. But a threat is all it remains, and despite the bumps along the way Bandits is a blast.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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