Self-described cineastes love nothing more than a former child actor or teen heartthrob who dedicates the entirety of their late twenties and thirties to looking creepy in weird art movies — your Robert Pattinsons, your Kristen Stewarts, your Shias LeBeouf and Ryans Gosling. But maybe for every Robert Pattinson tweeking out in a Safdie Brothers film, there’s a Josh Duhamel, a handsome heartthrob content to mostly stay handsome and be the third or fourth most famous blondish actor named Josh.
Sure, Josh Duhamel, star of Transformers movies and shows like Las Vegas and Crossing Jordan, isn’t cool or romantic or dangerous, the way we like our actors to be. But should we really judge him for parlaying an enviable jawline into what seems like a pretty nice life, just because he never kicks photographers or immerses himself in the lifestyle of an 18th-century cobbler or sends his costars boxes of dead rats?
These were things I pondered while watching Bandit, a perfectly watchable movie about a prolific Canadian bank robber. It’s snappy, looks pretty, and moves along affably enough. Yet as I got to the end, I nonetheless couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Something that would make an impact, stay with me longer than the closing credits, or differentiate it from any number of the other snappy films about affable con men.
Duhamel plays Gilbert Galvan Jr., a foster kid-turned criminal who flees a minimum-security prison where he was sent on a check fraud charge and relocates to Canada, where he pays a homeless guy $22 for his ID card. In the process, he assumes the man’s name, Robert Whiteman, for the remainder of his criminal career. As this happens, a helpful title card appears on the screen, reading “this actually happened,” a conceit Bandit reuses a few times throughout the movie. This kind of structural fourth-wall-breaking, if you want to call it that, if a slightly inelegant solution, is a nice way to avoid the “truth is stranger than fiction” problem that so many based-on-a-true-story movies eventually face. That that actually happened, and wasn’t just a screenwriter’s dramatic license, actually does enhance my enjoyment of it so it’s good to know. Incidentally, “Robert White Man” feels like the perfect pseudonym for Josh Duhamel.
Duhamel’s entire inoffensive handsome guy persona does seem particularly well-suited for this role, of a guy who becomes Canada’s most prolific bank robber, thanks in part to his cleverness, but also his ability to slip in and out of disguises and not leave too strong of an impression on people. Perhaps to compensate for Duhamel’s lack of edge, Bandit, directed by Allan Ungar from a script by Robert Knuckle and Kraig Wenman (not convinced these are real names, btw) casts Mel Gibson as a local crime lord who becomes Whiteman’s mentor. Gibson, Hollywood’s problematic uncle, has come to specialize in the problematic uncle role, and his first scene in Bandit, set in the eighties, sees his character, Tommy, complaining about a Boy George video on TV. “Music used to be about the music, now it’s all a circus sideshow,” Tommy laments, as if he’s the first old guy ever to be mad at a pop star looking too gay.
Gibson is kind of an awkward fit for this movie in general, doing decaf versions of the same un-PC jags he did in Father Stu, in between otherwise being a pretty caring mentor for Whiteman.
It’s hard not to enjoy a filmed heist, and Bandit, a series of heists set to toe-tapping needle drops (as a friend of Andy Warhol supposedly said of Easy Rider, “how clever to make a movie about your record collection”) is for the most part easy to enjoy. Whiteman becomes a family man, even as he continues to rob banks, a revelation his wife, played by Elisha Cuthbert, is surprisingly cool with. Whiteman’s wife seems like the kind of character who only exists in Canada, suitably played by one of our most Canadian actresses (perhaps second only to Emily Hampshire from Schitt’s Creek on my list of “actors you could tell are Canadian from 50 paces,” with all due respect to Cobie Smulders).
Yet there’s a major flaw in Bandit, and it’s that in this two-hour portrait of this guy, who was, I gather, notable for being Canada’s most prolific bank robber, you never get that strong a sense of who he was as a person or what was driving him. What aspect of his personality was this portrait meant to convey? What does his persona say about the world? Even after 125 minutes, the de rigueur epilogue text at the end of the movie feels rushed, like it’s trying to fill in some memorable information that the movie couldn’t. Bandit is, for all intents and purposes, a cinematic blond guy named Josh.