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Withdrawal Symptoms 

It was the smirk, I think. From the time he burst into America's consciousness as the cocky private detective on TV's Moonlighting, I have found Bruce Willis relentlessly irritating. I liked the first two Die Hard movies, but didn't like the fact that I liked them. So when The Bonfire of the Vanities was greeted with almost universal derision and Willis dropped a megaton stink bomb in Hudson Hawk, I was among the moviegoers who chortled smugly that he was finally getting what he deserved.

But I was wrong. Time has proven that Willis is one impressively smart cookie. Yes, he did curse like a speed freak with Tourette's Syndrome in the appalling Four Rooms. But on the whole, Willis has chosen his material with great acumen and with a remarkable absence of vanity. He's done terrific supporting turns in Nobody's Fool, In Country and Pulp Fiction. And he gamely played second fiddle to Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Not every one of his pictures is essential viewing, but even many that aren't, like last year's The Whole Nine Yards, prove surprisingly entertaining. That's precisely the case with the current Bandits, a throwaway flick with a smashingly bright script.

Written by Harley Peyton and directed by Barry Levinson, Bandits is the unlikely story of two bank robbers, a bored housewife and a wheel man as intellectually challenged as Michael J. Pollard in Bonnie and Clyde. Joe Blake (Willis) and Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) are escaped cons who dare to dream of life after crime. Joe and Terry meet in the slammer, make a break on a whim and carve out a career as the "Sleepover Bandits." First they case; then they kidnap. They show up at the bank manager's house after dark, stay for supper with the wife and kids, supervise a good night's rest, help with breakfast the next morning and accompany the boss to work in order to make a super-size withdrawal. Joe and Terry aren't above threatening people: "If you try to call the police, we'll come back and kill you." But they really wouldn't commit any act of violence against a person. They're just hoping to stack up enough loot to buy their own resort hotel just south of Acapulco and retire to the good life of white beaches and cold margaritas.

Enter Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett). Kate is a mess. She may not actually be bipolar, but she sure acts the part, all live-wire Madonna as chef one moment and Weepy Sue Suicide the next. Kate is rich, gorgeous and utterly neglected. Her self-absorbed husband Charles (William Converse-Roberts) doesn't seem to notice that she's a knockout, so he's forever going out to dinner with clients, and she's forever driving cross town blinded by tears of fury, humiliation and frustration. When Terry finds himself having to hijack Kate's car, Kate is all, "Why can't I be a bank robber, too?" Aren't movie plot complications wonderful?

And yes, even the receptive moviegoer will have to forgive the plotting here. All is contrivance. The details of the kidnappings don't wash. Who sleeps where and when? Who stands guard? Given the fact that TV has the story in its entirety, what's the point of all the silly disguises? And then the end ... anyone who doesn't see the end coming from shortly after the beginning really hasn't been going to nearly enough movies.

But none of that matters. I am willing to forgive most anything if a screenwriter will just give me something other than pratfalls and fart jokes. Peyton delivers a cast of kooky characters who speak refreshing lines and react to each other in unexpected ways. Joe is the brawn of the operation, physically courageous and personally charismatic without being ridiculously macho. Joe isn't the swiftest greyhound in the dog race, but Peyton doesn't stoop to making him stupid. Terry, meanwhile, is the gang's chief planner. He's not really as smart as he thinks he is, but he's smarter than Joe. And he's a hoot because he's such a crockpot of neuroses. Afraid of Joe's driving, Terry begs his partner to "just take me back to prison." Terry has "sanitation issues about Mexico," suffers from "fear of antique furniture" and reveals that he "can't eat in front of black-and-white movies." Joe is can do; Terry is "I can feel your pain."

And when love rears its horned head, as we know it must, we completely understand Kate's conclusion: "The two of you are the perfect man." Kate, of course, is sex appeal. When she contributes the most excruciating musical number since Cameron Diaz's moment of karaoke in My Best Friend's Wedding, every red-blooded male in America will want to climb into the movie to give her a comforting hug.

In sum, like so many others in which he's starred, this picture offers enough freshness to make me suspect, instead of merely listening to pitches, Bruce Willis actually reads scripts.

click to enlarge Bruce Willis, Cate Blanchett and Billy Bob Thornton make an unlikely trio of bank robbers in Barry Levinson's Bandits.
  • Bruce Willis, Cate Blanchett and Billy Bob Thornton make an unlikely trio of bank robbers in Barry Levinson's Bandits.
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