Angelina Jolie married Billy Bob Thornton. Ponder that.

Americans love outlaws, as long as they aren't American Outlaws. From the days of the Old West, we have romanticized the image of the bandit on the run, turning him from unwashed to scruffy, villainous to merely charmingly roguish. His crimes become beside the point.

And so dissatisfied housewife Kate (Cate Blanchett) treats the titular bandits (Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton). She immediately overlooks what they do for a living, but that's okay. By the time she meets up with them, Bandits has been so fun that the audience forgets they're bank robbers, too.

Director Barry Levinson underplays the details of the crimes. Though Terry (Thornton) plans the heists with exacting care, everything ends up feeling off the cuff. Indeed, he wouldn't even be out of prison if not for the off the cuff escape engineered by his unlikely buddy Joe (Willis), who in typical Willis fashion affably smirks his way through trouble. As they politely resume a career of bank-robbing, the two develop a following as "The Sleepover Bandits," whose exploits become fodder for a tabloid television show.

From the beginning, Levinson tips his hand by casting Bobby Slayton as the crusading journalist/host. When the Pit Bull of Comedy tries to play it serious, you know it can't be.

In fact, within ten minutes of the opening, all the pieces have fallen into place to tell you what will happen. With no real suspense, the film reveals itself to be a quirky character study, the kind Levinson tried to pull off in his last movie, An Everlasting Piece, but failed to do. Here it works.

Despite an ambling feel, Bandits rarely drags. Only the romance scenes slow things down, mainly because the filmmakers don't seem to want to make a choice anymore than Blanchett does. She makes a splashy entrance to the film lip-synching to the aforementioned Bonnie Tyler, and only revs higher from there. Why stop to find love when fun can be had? And the real dynamic is between Thornton and Willis anyway.

Give credit to the stars. Willis and Thornton both have no problem looking ridiculous. Their robberies involve ridiculous disguises (with Thornton at one point going for an early Neil Young look), so they can't have too much dignity intact.

Willis bears it all with his usual easygoing attitude, even when the hair that's supposed to really be his looks worse than the wacky wigs. Screenwriter Harley Peyton has also saddled him with a deep love of philosophy, which really ends being utterly unimportant. Unless you count being able to bag chicks by sounding deep, and even then he ends up quoting Bonnie Tyler.

Much of the comic energy comes from Thornton. His Terry sounds like a beefier version of Don Knotts, but one who makes Knotts look stable by comparison. A hypochondriac and multi-phobic by nature, Terry is a walking tic. Thornton gets the best line of the movie, and displays a real knack for physical comedy once Terry convinces himself he has a brain tumor. (It only sounds morbid.) The two stars make a good pair.

Bandits does something rare for a modern Hollywood comedy. It sticks to its guns, and that's why it works. Nothing comes out of the blue. No characters waver from who they establish themselves to be, especially the wheelman, Joe's dumb cousin Harvey (Troy Garity). From the outset, all he wants to be is a Hollywood stuntman, and the idea builds with hilarious results. In the end, it all means nothing, but you hardly notice.

And so Levinson, who started out as part of a comedy team, proves that he still knows how to make a solid comedy. Even as he pulls your leg, you admire him for how boldly he does it. Let's hope he can keep it up. After a year of lame comedies, we need more like Bandits.

What's it worth? $8

Derek McCaw

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