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Forty years ago, Wolfgang Petersen was a successful, 35-year-old TV director back in Germany, who had just made the heist film Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), based on the novel The Nixon Recession Caper by Ralph Maloney. Petersen’s two Oscar nominations, for writing and directing his magnum opus, Das Boot, were still several years away, not to mention titles such as The Neverending Story; In the Line of Fire; the movie that launched the career of compatriot Diane Kruger, Troy; and two further films featuring boats in peril, the George Clooney vehicle The Perfect Storm and his last Hollywood project, the ill-fated 2006 Poseidon remake, from which only Shameless star Emmy Rossum seems to have recovered, career-wise.
Fast-forward to today, and a now 75-year-old Petersen has returned to his Heimat to make his first German-language project in years, a little movie — compared to his colossal Hollywood undertakings, anyway — called, yes, Vier gegen die Bank. Why exactly he chose to remake his own caper comedy of sorts is hard to say when watching the second iteration of the film, which, for the most part, is a poor man’s Ocean’s Eleven that courses along nicely to Enis Rotthoff’s jazzy, practically wall-to-wall score but never quite takes flight and, significantly, struggles to land any real laughs.
The film opened on Christmas Day in Germany and did only about a tenth of the business of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If it ends up having some legs, it will be mainly because of the very bankable German leads rather than its director: Til Schweiger, Matthias Schweighoefer and Michael “Bully” Herbig have all starred in some of the biggest local hits of the past 15 or so years.
The actors are practically typecast in their roles: Schweighoefer, who was born in 1981, when Petersen made Das Boot, is the youngest and plays the suave romantic lead, nicknamed Max. He comes from a well-off family but has been setting aside his own money so he can get out from under his rich father’s influence. He calls Chris (Schweiger), a none-too-bright former boxer dreaming of having his own gym, and Peter (popular TV star Jan Josef Liefers), an over-the-hill TV actor, “granddaddies,” because they clearly belong to a different generation.
What the three have in common is that they are all clients of the same bank and their savings were handled by a straight-as-they-come bank employee, Tobias (Herbig), whose biggest fear is to be unclothed (no points for guessing what he’ll be forced to do later on in the movie). After some shady dealings by the bank director, Tobias is fired and the money of his clients has evaporated, leading the three angry men to attempt to kill Tobias and then hatch an even better plan: steal their money back from the bank using Tobias’ insider info.
Though there have been a few small updates of the material here and there — notably the level of poverty of the men, who were well-off country club members in the original — Petersen and his crew have made a concerted effort to maintain a 1970s vibe throughout. The bank they have their eye on is “one of the biggest of the country,” but its HQ is housed in a solid, neo-classical building (the Altes Stadthaus in Berlin was used for exteriors) and there’s never any sense that this enormous institution might have considered something like online banking. About as technologically advanced as the film gets is that the wannabe robbers need the code for a digital lock to open the bank’s safe and that the men have smartphones, though they conspicuously only use them for making and receiving calls, with not even an App in sight.
The film has two major setpieces: first, the actual robbery, which happens just before the film’s midpoint and which, almost against heist-movie conventions, doesn’t feature the usual back-and-forth cutting between the men’s planning and the actual execution of the heist but features the former in a short sequence involving some kiddie toys before moving on to the main event, executed with the leads decked out in hipster-ready wigs and beards. This midsection is executed quite sleekly, though the pulse is never sent racing — it stays more or less in rhythm with the zippy but never tension-inducing score — and the few fumbles and gags here and there offer chuckles rather than laugh-out-loud moments.
The biggest problem of the other major setpiece, in the film’s second half, is that it just doesn’t feel very major. To try and throw the hard-boiled, distaff police detective (Antje Traue, practically stealing the show) off their scent, the men create and then plant evidence that will lead her to arrest someone else instead of them. The stakes just don’t feel very high here, and instead of topping the men walking into a bank with guns and a plan, they scuffle with a ladder outside a mansion and have to try and quickly get out when someone comes home earlier than expected. The whole extended sequence just feels terribly low-key, and in terms of comedy, not a lot happens and what does is rather on the nose.
Indeed, for a caper comedy, the two biggest things missing are any real tension and real laughs. Everything runs pretty smoothly except for some minor comic hiccups, which means the film is pleasant without ever becoming special or especially involving. The problem in the comedy department particularly is at least twofold: Firstly, Petersen doesn’t have a lot of experience in this area. Secondly, the screenplay was written by U.S. screenwriter Tripper Clancy — if that’s his real name, a tip of the cap to his parents! — and then translated into German, and quick-witted banter doesn’t usually transfer well from one language to another.
Daniel Gottschalk’s widescreen cinematography handsomely showcases Sebastian T. Krawinkel’s production design and Metin Misdik’s costumes, both inspired by the 1970s’ obsession with dark and saturated colors, especially the shades of brown between tea and whiskey.
Production companies: Hellinger / Doll Filmproduktion, Warner Bros. Film Production Deutschland
Cast: Til Schweiger, Matthias Schweighoefer, Michael Bully Herbig, Jan Josef Liefers, Antje Traue, Alexandra Maria Lara, Thomas Heinze, Jana Pallaske
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay: Tripper Clancy, based on the novel The Nixon Recession Caper by Ralph Maloney
Producers: Christopher Doll, Lothar Hellinger, Wolfgang Petersen
Director of photography: Daniel Gottschalk
Production designer: Sebastian T. Krawinkel
Costume designer: Metin Misdik
Editor: Peter R. Adam
Music: Enis Rotthoff
Casting: Daniela Tolkien
Not rated, 96 minutes
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