Genre films tend to follow two paths. There are those that make clear their awareness of the format, and hew to it with enough subtle distinction to elevate the form (think Heat (1995) or Inside Man(2006)). Then there are those that believe themselves to be breaking the mold, but instead fall firmly within the genre’s conventions, repeating patterns and offering a movie whose greatest effect is deja vu. Marauders falls firmly in the second camp. A seemingly by the numbers heist film that spins itself as seemingly not so by the numbers, Marauders hits typical beats. But the movie mistakes gore and exaggerated drama for emotional effect, a central flaw that leads to shallow characters, a thin, distracted plot, and a frustrating conclusion.
The film’s introduction establishes its embrace of convention. Wide-lens shots of a gray, rainy city are punctuated by thumping, Hans Zimmer-style horn blasts. A bank heist occurs with only one deliberate murder; the FBI, headed by Special Agent Jonathan Montgomery (Christopher Meloni) and rookie Special Agent Wells (Adrian Grenier), are assigned to the case. The owner of the bank, Jeffrey Hubert (Bruce Willis), seems to know more than he’s letting on. More banks are hit, and more glaring and talking in soft whispers and growls occurs until ultimately there is a twist, a reveal and a resolution.
Yet Marauders’ confusion of violence for seriousness handicaps its entire progression. The characters develop backwardly, introduced without any personal struggles until about halfway through the film. And when their sympathetic traits are finally presented, they are all in terms of death. Special Agent Montgomery, it turns out, is defined by his deceased wife, a genuine point of sensitivity that is made crude and upsettingly humorous by his description of her “eyes being pulled out while still alive.” And this trait does nothing to inform his character’s motivations: his wife’s memory doesn’t do anything to cause him to move on throughout the movie, nor does it make personal his pursuit of a bank robber.
Even when the death-as-sincerity technique produces a compelling character, such as Jonathon Schaech’s Detective Mims, it still impedes any moments of emotional connection or character development. Mims’ background is introduced too late, nearly halfway through the film, and there’s just no room to fit in his story about going crooked to support his terminally ill wife. The concept behind his story is so strong as to deserve its own film, which is possibly why it’s so shoehorned here, but unfortunately the effect is lost. That his character essentially has no business in the film at all is not Schaechs’ fault. His arc serves only to highlight further how little we as viewers have been brought to care about the other characters. One is left watching Mims’ fate with the same reaction as all of the characters in this film: foregone shrugs and head-scratching. Marauders commits the cardinal sin of never convincing us that we aren’t just watching our favorite actors, rather than engrossing, identifiable characters.
That being said, getting to watch these actors is the best part of the film. Marauders’ tendency towards the cartoonish leads to every actor’s best and worst tendencies reaching their extreme. Of all of the performances, Schaech’s turn as Mims is easily the best: he lends sincerity and (dare I say it) emotional heft to a film that otherwise dips into caricature. Since the concern of being compelled is out of the window, the viewer gets to enjoy what are essentially each actor’s different reactions to being in a film this shallow. Willis is downright antagonistic to his role. So upset does he seem at having to be there that his character’s opening monologue, meant to imply his gravity and severity, instead sounds like Willis reading the script for the first time over the phone, sans punctuation. And Adrian Grenier, try as he might, cannot help but seem tone-deaf throughout the whole movie. It’s possibly a consequence of miscasting: the wiry and forever-boyish Grenier is a long-shot sell as a hardened Special Forces operative, and he sadly never manages to hit the established mark between a battle-hardened vet and a newbie to the FBI. By contrast, Christopher Meloni is clearly having fun in his lead role as Special Agent Montgomery. He’s perfectly at home playing a hard-ass cop, and the benefits of an R-rating allow him to go further off the swearing and fist-slamming rails than usual. His and Dave Bautista’s rapport is some of the silliest of the film, and some of the most enjoyable.
Yet the performances of the cast are the film’s feature strength in part because the plot is so wanting and thin. The movie’s twist is plain, banal, and almost immediately contradicted. When Meloni’s character tells the responsible party “no, you don’t just get to walk away,” the character in question then literally walks away a few minutes later. And really it’s only the ending – so stale, arbitrary, and contradicting that it leaves us feeling cheated for what little investment we did give – that disrupts what is otherwise a harmless and fun, if not somewhat boring, film.
Genre films like Marauders tend to be at their best when they don’t take themselves too seriously. Marauders is clearly meant to be a popcorn movie, but has instead confused itself as a nail-biting thrill ride. Drama is interjected rather that developed; Meloni’s Montgomery suddenly yelling at a suspect about having to shop for a casket for an imaginary dead infant turns comical in a way that only makes the viewer feel weird and guilty for responding in such a way. None of the characters are identifiable or likeable in a way that would invite reviewing, nor is the direction unique or challenging enough to merit study. When left to determine what the point of the film was, the viewer is left echoing Special Agent Wells’ response at being asked the same question: “I don’t know.”