Barry Levinson’s complacently placid caper comedy Bandits sends short-fused ladies’ man Joe (Bruce Willis) and fidgety hypochondriac Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) on a bewigged Butch and Sundance jaunt. Rigid as its itinerary may be, the road trip at least kicks off with the promise of bumpy detours. The duo’s impromptu escape from an Oregon penitentiary is inspired by a cheeseburger craving; their first holdup is practically an afterthought, executed with the aid of a fluorescent highlighter. It’s not long before Joe and Terry gain tabloid celebrity as the Sleepover Bandits, so named for their chummy approach to bank robbing. The idea is to kidnap the manager the night before, though in practice this apparently means inviting themselves over for a slumber party of sorts.
The setup is at once irrational (it’s unclear what actually transpires during these presumably sleepless sleepovers) and pleasantly off-the-cuff. But Levinson and screenwriter Harley Peyton (a bunch of Twin Peaks episodes) tense up when they thrust the squabbling pair—imperious smirk versus disapproving scowl—into the warpath of bored, neglected housewife Kate (Cate Blanchett), who, in lieu of backstory, is introduced lip-synching to “Holding Out for a Hero” while fixing dinner. Sparks fly in every direction, but after Kate enjoys discrete romantic interludes with Joe, then Terry (while Joe’s away), the movie squeamishly insists on abstinence—and, by default, on equal billing for the two leads. Neither sardonic nor slapstick enough, Bandits is framed as a flashback (the heroes, we’re told up front, have perished in a shoot-out), which merely heightens the general feeling of inevitability. Thanks to the pockets of downtime created by the two-hour-plus duration, along with some sloppily littered clues, even the twist ending is a foregone conclusion.
More princes among thieves: Joe and Terry filch only federal-insured funds; the eponymous hero of Iron Monkey steals warlord booty to feed Chinese peasants. Miramax is reheating this eight-year-old serving of chop-socky in the wake of director Yuen Wo-Ping’s acclaim as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s fight choreographer, but anyone expecting the decorous serenity of the Ang Lee film should be aware that Iron Monkey strives for no more or less than comic-strip thwack and thump. The Phantom Menace of the Wong Fei-Hong movies, it vaguely concerns the formative years of the endlessly filmable 19th-century folk hero (embodied elsewhere by Jet Li and Jackie Chan). Here Wong is a precocious tot (Tsang Sze-Man—a girl!) whose father (Donnie Yen) has been ordered by the mercenary governor to capture the Iron Monkey (Yu Ruan-Guang). Tsui Hark is credited as producer and cowriter, but the Tsui-ish gender tweak notwithstanding, Iron Monkey softens the headlong anarchy of his best films, and bypasses the ornate mythopoeia altogether. Still, the final duel, fought on burning poles and involving at least a half dozen Olympic skills, is dazzling—a high-wire act that dares to one-up Once Upon a Time in China‘s multi-ladder fracas.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2001