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Plot aside -- way aside, as it's almost a nonissue in a film that telegraphs its final scenes during its opening moments -- Bandits is really about only one thing: Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis's bald heads. As Joe Blake (Willis) and Terry Collins (Thornton), two bank-robbing fugitives in search of retirement and a life of endless sunsets south of the border, the actors sport wigs so tragic and haphazard they function as sight gags; the hairpieces come with their own laugh tracks. Joe's rug, flowingly unkempt, recalls Bill Murray's run-amok comb-over in Kingpin; Terry's looks like something that might awaken at the slightest noise.

Bandits is delightful almost in spite of itself: It drags and sputters, gets distracted when it wants to get down, and can no more find its rhythm than a drummer with both hands behind his back. Yet Thornton and Willis make for amiable protagonists, keeping things moving even when director Barry Levinson and writer Harley Peyton slip back into neutral. Such, perhaps, are the rewards of familiarity: The Armageddon costars bicker and banter like the old friends they are, fighting the way pals do when they can say anything without severing the bond. The two couldn't be more dissimilar: Joe's a slick, spontaneous hustler who breaks out of prison on a whim (using a concrete-mixing truck) and wastes his hard-stolen money on women; Terry's a brainy hypochondriac with a litany of fears, among them Charles Laughton, antique furniture, and Benjamin Disraeli's hair. Separately they're as useless as a leaky water pistol in a holdup; together they're the perfect man, at least in the estimation of Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett, who appeared in Pushing Tin with Thornton), the bored, Bonnie Tyler- obsessed housewife who invites herself into the bank robbers' lives.

The film is constructed in such a way that the bank holdups, which become brazen and silly when Joe and Terry become TV-created celebrities with catchy nicknames, are almost moot. After a while they feel like diversions rather than the destination, even though the entire film is told in flashback from the inside of a bank lobby. During these moments Bandits plays like sitcom Steven Soderbergh: It literally begins at the end, as Terry and Joe await their fate during the bungled robbery of a Los Angeles bank, surrounded by cops.

This movie suffers most when its attempts to mock a culture that would make stars of good-guy bad guys. A videotaped interview the two give is scattered throughout the movie, but its scant insights only gum up the works; every time the movie builds steam, Levinson stops to revel in the clever setup. Soderbergh's crime films (Out of Sight and The Limey) jump back and forth through the narrative to reveal the way memory deceives us; it becomes part of the con, the way we linger over the pleasurable and fast-forward through the painful. We can never tell what secrets are contained within a character's smile. Levinson uses the same conceit but as empty gimmick; it serves no point other than to cover a movie in an ill-fitting toupee it doesn't need.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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