Cops and Robbers

“How to Rob a Bank” and “Power” are two very different stories of law enforcement.

“How to Rob a Bank” is a crime doc driven by how people watch crime movies, particularly Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” and Michael Mann’s “Heat.” It is little wonder that they continue to capture people’s attention, as they are two of the most visceral of American crime movies, with chic and sexy cops and robbers and taut and silky set pieces that render violence into a narcotic. They are cool as hell, and there’s never a time when I couldn’t watch one or the other of them. I’m not alone.

Another admirer of these films was a real-life bank robber nicknamed “Hollywood,” who held up a number of banks in Seattle in the early 1990s, eventually stealing a couple million dollars and rocking the climate of a city that was on the verge of radical cultural upheaval — from the birth of grunge rock to the rise of steroidal capitalism that such rock opposed, in the forms of Starbucks, Amazon, and other corporations. It’s amazing that this story hasn’t been turned into a fictional crime movie yet, though Hollywood so consciously modeled his methods on the tropes of other movies that it might seem derivative if repurposed again, not that that has deterred filmmakers in the past. Hollywood is a tall-tale writ real.

Hollywood was obsessed with the do-or-die ethos of Patrick Swayze’s character in “Point Break,” who preached of living free off the grid and embracing your limits, even if he himself is subject to the same concerns of money and vanity that dog many of us. Swayze and Bigelow are aware of this hypocrisy. Hollywood, who shares this hypocrisy, apparently missed the film’s central irony: that Swayze’s “rebellion” is another form of capitalism. In fairness, Swayze is so charismatic, and Bigelow’s high-octane set pieces so accomplished, that it’s easy to miss the subtext. No one watches “Point Break” for the first or eighth time for a seminar on American greed.

Hollywood internalized “Point Break” for its celebration of self-absorption. What does the lifelong trauma that you cause bank tellers by threatening their lives matter if robbing keeps you from having to work a day job? Like the Swayze character, underneath Hollywood’s hippy-dippy sexiness is a hard-boiled narcissist who wants things the way he wants it. Below Hollywood’s creepy visage, fashioned from putty that renders him into a sort of modern invisible man, replete with a D.A.R.E. hat, is Scott Scurlock, a tall, muscled, good-looking and brilliant man of the woods.

“How to Rob a Bank” features many pictures of Scurlock and many interviews with friends, family, and accomplices, and he gradually arises as someone who is “off.” That off-ness can be incredible, as in the astonishing tree-house, a true tree-home, that he erected 50 feet above the ground somewhere in woods (that he bought, I think, with part of the stolen money). This home with its many balconies and planks and sprawling suspended floors suggests a Swiss Family Robinson-style fortress of solitude. People close to him say it is a physicalizing of Scott’s soul, which is the kind of purple prose that one might find coming out of the mouths of the characters in “Point Break.”

Filmmakers Stephen Robert Morse and Seth Borges alternate a sentimental portrait of Scott as a robber hunk with an icier story of his entitlement. The police and F.B.I. agents chasing Hollywood are understandably unflattering of Scott, though the more diverting thread here pertains to the rivalries between the various law enforcers. Like Scott, they could be out of a movie: One is brainy and another is brawny, while another still is a mother figure trying to keep all the boys from killing each other. Could the filmmakers have interrogated these clichés, rather than utilizing them as convenient shorthand? Yes, they could have, and that’s one among several reasons why “How to Rob a Bank” is never more than an amusing pop film. This is not auto-critical cinema, but more the streaming equivalent of a beach read.

At 89 minutes, “How to Rob a Bank” is propulsive, stylish and splashy. Morse and Borges double-down on the fantasy element of the narrative with illustrated storyboards that suggest the missing link between Hollywood’s real story and its inevitable evolution into myth. Storyboards, recreations, and footage of the robberies blend into a mutating hydra of sensory stimulation. I’ve more than once rued the way that true-crime docs turn atrocity into tabloid cartoons for our delectation, but here that’s the point: This film revels in tropes that are so appealing that they become an infecting agent, turning a brilliant guy into a [Robin Hood-like] antihero, someone who is big enough to fill up his cavernous ego. The film’s ending, acknowledging the social cost of said ego, has an unexpected bite that prevents “How to Rob a Bank” from turning flippant or crass.

Yance Ford’s “Power” is considerably more ambitious than “How to Rob a Bank,” offering an essay on the history of law enforcement in the United States, which Ford links explicitly, persuasively, and repetitively to oppression. Three foundational needs of early law enforcement, after all, were the regulation of lands stolen from Native Americans, slave patrols, and the police bodies formed to bust-up strikes during robber barons’ grabs for power. Ford links these origin stories with modern oppression, from the killing of Black citizens to the violent busting up of protests.

For the politically engaged, Ford’s argument isn’t going to be new: the police are virtually unregulated and radically over-funded, gobbling up resources that could be used to prevent crime via vaster equalization between races and classes. They are but one part of the military industrial complex that illustrates our country’s crippling addiction to violence as one-size-fits-all solution — mostly for privileged white people.

One can be sympathetic to these points and still find “Power” to be a scattershot TED Talk in cinematic clothing. Ford springs a few brutally effective cinematic flourishes, such as the wicked juxtaposition of the visuals of a promotional video for police with the audio of a person being hurt during an arrest, but much of the film is composed of stock footage and talking heads that quickly grow monotonous. Ford only interviews people who support the project’s thesis, and I craved counterpoint for, at the very least, dramatic value. If you are going to argue for the defunding of the police, shouldn’t we hear from police? Shouldn’t we hear from people who, rightly or wrongly, feel comforted by endless promises of more law enforcement?

Most of the people interviewed are intellectuals with published books and teaching posts who tow familiar lines of the progressive establishment. One surmises that they have more time and resources than many to commit to pondering theory. How about folks on the front lines? We get one late in the film, an Indian man who recalls being harassed by that disastrous stop-and-frisk policy as a boy. But “Power” could use more such voices.

A subplot with a Black middle-aged police officer in Minneapolis jolts “Power” to life. He is torn between racial and professional identities, thusly complicating the film’s sermon with an acknowledgement of the ambiguities of life outside the realms of sociopolitical conjecture. This police officer suggests a personal entryway into this material, but Ford mostly favors broadsword preaching over potentially subtler and more intimate threads.

The implication is that Ford values the mission, and that reform is too important to waste time with art or the inconveniences of life outside of the office or classroom. But art is what lingers in the imagination and fertilizes empathy. The people who embrace “Power” will be familiar with every talking point that it broaches, and they will probably congratulate themselves for their due diligence before forgetting the movie. And one can’t help but suspect that those who need to see “Power” won’t anyway.

“How to Rob a Bank” and “Power” are both streaming on Netflix.


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