How To Rob A Bank

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

How To Rob A Bank
"So strange is the tale that unfolds that one is never quite sure where it will turn." | Photo: Netflix

Talk to a police officer, anywhere in the world, and they’ll tell you the same thing: most criminals are stupid. That’s how they get caught. Generally speaking, smart people don’t go in for crime – they can think of less risky ways to get what they want. But what if they did? Directed by Seth Porges (of Class Action Park fame) and Stephen Robert Morse (who produced 2016’s Amanda Knox), How To Rob A Bank tells the true story of the man they called Hollywood, who fell on hard times, watched Point Break, and commenced a crime spree unlike anything seen before or since.

It happened in Seattle, though at times the events recounted here make it sound more like Gotham City. “When he walked into Lake City bank to rob us, he walked straight past his wanted poster,” one bank teller recalls. by then he’d abandoned the dead president disguise – it was too obvious, going in – instead wearing heavy make-up and prosthetics to conceal his true appearance. But who was that masked man? The fact that we now know – and that this film includes interviews with some of his close friends and co-conspirators – would seem to preclude the possibility of a happy ending. Still, so strange is the tale that unfolds that one is never quite sure where it will turn.

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It’s a tale recounted by people on both sides. We hear from members of the gang recruited by the robber, mostly college friends of his who happened to possess useful talents. We also hear from Shawn Johnson, the FBI special agent who led the case, and his colleague, police detective Mike Magan, who fit rather splendidly into the buddy cop stereotypes of the era. Ellen Glasser, the Seattle-based supervising FBI agent, is a little different, a mother of young children who has rather more down to earth, human concerns, like the bank staff whose testimony reminds us that these audacious robberies were not without victims.

There are reconstructions, with actors stepping in to play some of these roles. There’s also a fair supply of material from the time, which gives us the chance to see treasures now lost, like the magnificent tree house in which the master criminal lived, where he was known to answer the door naked except for his toolbelt. We learn about his commitment to ecological causes, his hatred of destructive logging, his love of travel and his unusual talent for cooking up Breaking Bad quality crystal meth.

His Robin Hood reputation is dismantled, but he still comes across as having been a generous person, keen to help anyone he knew who was in trouble – unless that was all consciously about ensuring that he could call on them later. Either way, his personality begins to darken as the story progresses. Like many people who excel in their fields, he became dissatisfied, looking for new and greater thrills. This doesn’t come across as a simple narrative fantasy – it’s well supported by the various participants, and explains the thinking behind his eventual effort to pull off the ultimate heist.

There is, his former associates point out, no educational support for people building a career in robbing banks. They had to figure it out by themselves, getting lucky early on, then applying their intelligence and skill. What they learn might, as the title suggests, teach you a fair bit about how to do it yourself, though as money doesn’t really work the same way these days, it’s unlikely to pay very well. Wildly exciting though it is – and a ripping yarn on every level – it is also a cautionary tale. If you take up bank robbery after watching, well, you’re probably the kind of person who would also have been first onto the new rides in Action Park. Enjoy your life whilst it lasts. This film is well worth an hour and a half of it.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2024
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How To Rob A Bank packshot
In this true-crime documentary, a charismatic rebel in 1990s Seattle pulls off an unprecedented string of bank robberies straight out of the movies.

Director: Stephen Robert Morse, Seth Porges

Writer: Maxim Gertler-Jaffe, Stephen Robert Morse, Max Peltz

Starring: Jordan Burtchett, Kurt Ostlund, Chezca Vega

Year: 2024

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: US

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