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Three-Way Bank Robbers 

*Bandits (PG-13)
MGM

Barry Levinson (Diner, Rainman) might seem an unlikely director to helm a bank heist comedy in which a couple of escaped prisoners become outlaw heroes. But the key word here is comedy. Pratfalls, snappy dialogue and snazzy character work (especially by Billy Bob Thornton) make Bandits a laugh-out-loud movie that even manages to pull off a surprise ending.

Levinson emphasizes the movie's theme of escape as a necessary option between the opposite poles of thought and action represented by the two main thieves. Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) is a man of intellect, albeit a phobia- riddled intellect, whereas his partner Joe (Bruce Willis) springs into action wherever he sees an opening. Kate (Cate Blanchett) becomes the mutual love interest bond that alters the group's liberation.

The old adage that says "crime doesn't pay" is one that has been increasingly tossed out by American screenwriters over recent years. And it's unlikely that that attitude will reverse itself any time soon, regardless of the truly weird times America goes through. The bigger moral lesson that writers have learned is that crime does frequently pay criminals quite handsomely and that it would be nave to pretend it ain't so. It's with this awareness that Bandits screenwriter Harley Peyton sets up his benevolent outlaw characters, who are memorable mainly for their quirky sensibilities and mutual penchant for love.

Kate Wheeler is the fuel to the flame the boys maintain. Having run into Terry (literally with her car) after being dissed by her negligent husband, Kate is a one-woman Thelma and Louise. Not only can she handle Joe's macho romantic designs, but she surprises herself by taking on Terry's delicate sensitive nature as well. Kate doesn't make a very good outlaw, but she can cook in the kitchen and in the bedroom, and run interference among the trouble it takes to get there. Unfortunately Blanchett is never allowed to run free enough with the burning sexual desire that should predicate Kate's actions. It's one of the movie's few serious flaws that Kate's potential for pleasure is never revealed beyond the sultry dance moves she does while lip-syncing a pop song as she hastily cooks a gourmet dinner that her husband later dismisses.

The real treat at the bottom of the cinematic box of Bandits is Billy Bob Thornton's comic physicality and controlled vocal range. Thornton dials up a list of physical tics and flinches that color the movie with unexpected snaps of comedy. Thornton has the looseness of a younger actor -- like, say, Robert Downey Jr. -- and speaks in a variety of tones and rhythms that keep you glued to his every word.

Bandits sets its sights on the relationship between Terry, Joe and Kate like planes flying in tight formation. As one breaks off to perform some gravity-defying stunt, the other two keep their proximity so that there's a cool harmony between them. Bruce Willis stays in his signature mannered mode, allowing Thornton to steal scenes at will. As an escapist comedy the movie zigs and zags just where you don't expect, and that gives you enough time to laugh without missing the next gag.

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