"Bandits" is one of those disastrous misfires that leave people scratching their heads to find out what went wrong and why. After all, with three stars who can handle light comedy - Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett - and a director who made "Wag the Dog" - Barry Levinson - it must have seemed like a sure hit to MGM, which produced it. If there were any worries they would have been about Willis, but his wonderful comic timing in "The Whole Nine Yards" showed he is more than capable of handling a film like this, whose sole purpose is to give the audience a good time.
The story - in concept - is cute. Two inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, Joe (Willis) and Terry (Thornton) break out at a lucky moment when a cement truck comes through the gate. They take refuge at a suburban home and plan their next career as a bank-robbing team, in which they will go to a bank manager's house the night before, stay there with the family, then escort the manager to the bank next morning so that he can open the vaults and get them the money. They become known as the Sleepover Bandits.
Along the way they meet-cute with Cate (Blanchett), when her car hits Terry, and they take her along, leading to a couple of love triangles and jealousies. The fourth member of the team is a stunt-man wannabe (Troy Garity), who incessantly practices everything from going up in flames to leaping off tall buildings to popping bloody squibs that represent shots to his body.
For some reason of plot structure we see the film as a flashback narrated by the host of a TV show that resembles "America's Most Wanted," as he describes their last stand at a bank in Los Angeles. Since it turns out that this is simply a setup for a trick ending, which could have been handled without that context, it just serves to flatten any impact the rest of the film might have on the audience.
But there's more. Let's start with the script, by Harley Peyton, whose major credits are a dozen episodes of "Twin Peaks." They are not at all a help here, for he has written not real people but simply a collection of tics. So Thornton gives us an obsessive-compulsive personality, combined with an enormous number of psychosomatic allergies. Blanchett is the devoted-housewife-brilliant-cook whose husband pays no attention to her. And - last and sadly least - the script gives Willis nothing but plot points to speak. No wit, no character, no persona at all.
So what should be great fun simply lurches along from bank robbery to bank robbery through some pretty Oregon and Northern California scenery, becoming increasingly repetitious because we're not having a good time. There are moments, a few, in which Blanchett shows her acting chops with a karaoke version of "Holding Out for a Hero" and a scene in which she moons over "Total Eclipse of the Heart." But without wit there's nothing for us to do but wait for the trick ending. That's not enough.