Jason Statham finally breaks out in The Bank Job, a film too fast and fun to fact-check

Jason Stratham discovers in The Bank Job that he should have stuck with used cars.
Jason Stratham discovers in The Bank Job that he should have stuck with used cars.

"Based on a true story," brags The Bank Job before diving into the clear blue water of the Caribbean, where, in 1970, a topless woman frolics with two swimming mates. The trio retires to a hotel room for a sweaty, breathless afternoon quickie, which is photographed by a Peeping Tom — who will later turn out to be the militant British Black Power figure Michael X, who stores the pictures in a London safe-deposit box for safekeeping. Because, you see, the woman peeped at through the window is royalty: Princess Margaret, who often retreated to the island with her gardener boyfriend, according to the English press. Not so many photographers around — except this one man, on this lucky day.

Only: British spy service MI5 would like those photos back, if you please. So it corrals some amateur villains into doing its dirty work — which is to say, breaking into a Lloyd's bank vault — lest MI5 sully its own manicured hands. Among those recruited for the robbery is a small-time used-car salesman, who, to this point, had been involved only in "the odd bit of skullduggery." He's also the unwitting pawn of a former model (and his former girlfriend) doing penance for a heroin bust at the airport. In short order, the two put together a gang consisting of capital-C characters, rent a purse-shop storefront, tunnel under a fried-chicken eatery, and drill their way through sewers and burial crypts containing corpses left over from the Great Plague of 1665, until they reach the X that marks the spot.

And not only do the pics get looted and scooted out of the vault, but also a few million pounds and other goodies belonging to the Black Power baddies. It all gets pretty damned blinkered 'round the time a ham-radio operator catches the robbers' walkie-talkie chitchat, and soon enough a secret op becomes a media sensation — until, that is, the whole thing disappears from the papers like it never happened.

The actual English media have spent the better part of a year back-and-forthing over the true-or-false plot points of The Bank Job. Among the details left out in media accounts: the porn king who's paying off dirty coppers, the murder of a female MI5 agent sent to spy on Michael X in his Trinidad hideout, and the various British politicians photographed having their naughty bits whipped about by prostitutes hanging around S&M dungeons. Based on a true story? Sure, whatever you say.

Jason Statham plays the used-car salesman running an odometer-tinkering scam. The model/ex-girlfriend is Saffron Burrows, a good six inches taller than Statham. Michael X is Peter De Jersey, looking not a little like a beefier version of Jeffrey Wright's Jean-Michel Basquiat. The rest of the cast consists of vaguely familiar British actors having a laugh — good thing too, as the whole thing's such a giddy good-time mess. It makes Ocean's Eleven look like a Maysles brothers documentary.

Real or not, it's a real gas: Statham at last proves himself a leading man who does more than lead with his head. It isn't till the film's end that he has to throw a few punches and land a few head-butts — contractually obligated, no doubt. But by then he's managed to negotiate a screenplay in which there are complete sentences — whole paragraphs, even — that he gives his all to without breaking a sweat. He might yet become Bruce Willis.

There's nothing earth-shattering otherwise: Imagine, if you can, Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks filtered through Guy Ritchie's Snatch, as directed by a real filmmaker — or close enough, in Roger Donaldson's case.

Still, Donaldson's gotta try awful hard to keep this merry mess together — it was concocted, after all, by the same pair responsible for the garishly gruesome Across the Universe. But eventually he cuts loose and lets go, resulting in a Bank Job worth the loot — 10 bucks, give or take.