Under the Radar: Genre Movies You May Have Missed — Bandits

Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, and Bruce Willis.

As a reporter says in the opening prologue, Bandits (2001) is “part Bonnie and Clyde, part Barnum & Bailey.” It’s farcical comedy, crime melodrama, and a unique love story all rolled into one.

Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) and Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) are a pair of inmate pals who spontaneously decide to break out of prison. In the aftermath, confident Joe sets his sights on his dream of buying a hotel in Mexico and turning it into a restaurant and casino. He’ll work the front, while the high-strung Terry can manage the restaurant and finances.

But casinos cost money, and the pair’s pretty strapped for cash — not to mention on the lam. So the fugitives turn to their most bankable skill and concoct a daring plan: they’ll rob banks by kidnapping the managers the night before, then make off with the goods the next morning with their hostage’s assistance.

They enlist Joe’s cousin, Harvey Pollard (Troy Garity), to be their getaway driver and odd job man, and before long, Joe and Terry are known as the Sleepover Bandits. Their faces may be plastered on every TV and they’re now at the top of the Most Wanted list, but things are definitely looking up.

Until their path crosses with Kate Wheeler, that is. Kate (Cate Blanchett) is an extremely unhappy housewife — and not entirely mentally balanced. She’s in the middle of a meltdown when Terry, stranded on the side of the road, hijacks her car. He quickly realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew when she careens wildly through traffic, insisting on taking him back to their hide-out rather than surrender the car.

Someone’s gotten between Joe and Terry.

And when Joe and Kate lock eyes, things get even more complicated. Soon the trio of criminals is a quartet, with Kate the Bonnie to Joe’s Clyde. Then the knots get further tangled when, forced into hiding after a dramatic mishap, Terry and Kate develop feelings for each other.

Suddenly the solid partnership of Joe and Terry, and their dream of a Mexican paradise, is threatened by a love triangle of dangerous proportions.

What makes Bandits such an entertaining watch (and re-watch) are the characters and performances. When you’ve got two Oscar winners (Blanchett and Thornton) and an eminently likable action hero (Willis), you know you’re in for some fun.

Willis’ Joe is big, brash, and ultra-masculine — but he’s also a romantic who quotes Bonnie Tyler lyrics and mangles Eastern philosophy in an attempt to sound sage. Thornton’s Terry may be a neurotic hypochondriac, but he’s also intelligent, witty, and sensitive. And Blanchett’s Kate is a little bit fruity and over-emotional, but she’s also a woman long thwarted in life who just wants to have some adventure and romance. You can’t really blame her for hitching her wagon to Joe and Terry’s rising star.

The secondary characters are a hoot, too. Slightly dim Harvey is a wannabe stunt man obsessed with setting himself on fire who falls in love from afar with a mysterious hitch-hiking girl in pink boots. The hostages are an eclectic bunch, including a narcoleptic bank manager and a family with precocious kids (who happen to be Willis’ real life daughters).

My favorite thing about Bandits definitely has to be the three-way relationship between Joe, Terry, and Kate. Joe and Terry are friends that prove that opposites can attract, each bringing something to the table in order to make a perfect partnership of brains and brawn/initiative. Kate and Joe have wild chemistry and are wonderfully playful together; and when she’s with Terry, the pair is introspective and emotional. She brings out the romantic in Joe and tempers Terry’s neuroses.

When the two bank robbers fight and posture over who gets to “keep her,” she suggests they just attempt a three-way relationship. She loves them, they both love her, and there’s been a degree of love between them since before she arrived on the scene. As she laments: how can she possibly choose between Joe and Terry when together they’d be the perfect man?

It’s not often you see the concept of polyamory addressed in a mainstream movie — for that alone, this movie is noteworthy and deserving of a watch.

Between Terry’s ridiculous (and imagined) health problems and the witty dialogue, there’s plenty to laugh at. The movie’s serious moments don’t change the fact that this is a comedy.

The story is a fun and twisty adventure with just a dash of danger and suspense — in true Bonnie and Clyde fashion, we know that the Sleepover Bandits run the risk of dying in the pursuit of their criminal enterprises, no matter how likeable or harmless they are. And given how the movie opens…

Well, let’s just say there are some unexpected twists in the very satisfying climax.

Bandits is a film that I’ve enjoyed for years, but whenever I bring it up in conversation, I tend to get blank looks. Considering how star-studded and entertaining this little crime melodrama is, that’s a damn shame. If you’re looking for a funny, well-acted flick with a gratifying story, give this gem a shot.

If you like: Bonnie and Clyde stories; Shane Black’s action films.

Why you should watch it: It’s got a fabulous cast and an interesting take on the stereotypical “love triangle” set-up.

Favorite moment: Joe and Terry’s escape from prison is madcap fun.

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.


  1. Karen Terry

    I love Bandits. It was a goood movie.

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