“Bandit” may be, as it proudly declares up front, based on a true story. But it’s hard to believe the titular antihero was quite as charming as the guy playing him.
Josh Duhamel is Robert Whiteman — or, technically, Gilbert Galvan Jr., as he’s known before he escapes a Michigan jail and flees to Ontario in 1985. He becomes Whiteman when he buys a homeless man’s ID, so he can get a job selling ice cream. But when he’s fired, he needs a new gig fast. Unfortunately, even in Canada it’s tough to find work as a wanted convict.
So Robert starts looking around for ways to make some easy money. Actually, make that fast money. Canadian banks, he learns while robbing them, have very little security, and he’s in and out in minutes. But it’s definitely work, what with the careful planning, the costumes and prosthetics, and the inevitably complicated getaways.
Before he makes enough for regular rent payments, he crashes at a church shelter run by social worker Andrea (Elisha Cuthbert). Initially, he tells her he’s working for his dad. Then, when they get serious and she finds the stacks of cash, he promises he only wants to earn enough to buy a little bar in the Bahamas. She believes him every time because, well, she’s the kind of person who works in a church shelter. But we see the glint in Robert’s eye from his very first heist, when he flirts with the teller, and she flirts right back. He’s in it for life, and that means he needs to level up.
In comes Tommy Kay (Mel Gibson), the neighborhood heavy. Tommy owns a seedy strip bar, but he really keeps himself busy as Ontario’s biggest fence. Even as Andrea gets pregnant and sets up their home, her fiancé is flying around Canada robbing banks and casing jewelry stores.
Everyone seems to fall pretty hard for Robert, who is now known across the country as the Flying Bandit, given his penchant for dropping in on a new city, politely relieving a local establishment of its cash, and making it back home by dinner. That he captivates so many of his victims is only understandable because he’s played with so much elan by Duhamel.
Detective Snydes (Nestor Carbonell), who’s been trying unsuccessfully to bust Tommy for years, is more resistant to Robert’s charms. As he looks for yet another way to take Tommy down, he notices that Robert seems to come and go from the bar pretty often. From there, it’s only a matter of time: either Snydes will finally get his bust, or Robert will humiliate him for good.
Canadian director Allan Ungar (“Gridlocked”) and screenwriter Kraig Wenman (adapting a book by Robert Knuckle) are as enamored of Robert as everyone else. Wenman mimics his playfulness with amusing interjections to the audience, assuring us that “this really happened” at particularly preposterous moments. Ungar, who co-edited with Michael Lane, tries to replicate Robert’s energy with mostly snappy pacing, though the movie is about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be.
Like Robert, who times everything out to the second, Ungar should have been in and out before we realized what’s hit us. Instead, things slow down when we spend too much time with the side characters. Gibson is sour and indifferent, and Cuthbert has nothing more to do than play a generic supportive spouse.
But Carbonell — who, like Duhamel, brings fizz to his every role — doesn’t disappoint. When the story bounces between Snydes and Robert, it feels as though the two of them are tossing a ball back and forth.
Robert’s costumes are a little too outlandish, but the ’80s set design is pretty strong, especially considering the film was shot (with Atlanta serving as Canada) during the pandemic. And music supervisor Cody Partridge has put together an aptly dynamic soundtrack, from the opening warning of Trooper’s “Raise a Little Hell” to the best use of Yello since “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Ultimately, though, it all comes down to Duhamel. For a brief, heady moment, the real Galvan had all of Canada intrigued by his exploits. But the greatest coup of all is that his legacy will now forever be defined by “Bandit.”
“Bandit” opens in US theaters Sept. 23.