Earlier this year, word emerged that Danny Boyle was going to direct a feature film adaptation of the documentary, “Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers.” But, hadn’t he just come off a heist thriller with “Trance“? Wasn’t the presumed story of a bunch of jewel thieves a bit rote for someone like Boyle who likes to go deep narratively, and push things aesthetically? Certainly, on the surface, there’s nothing particularly original about ‘Smash & Grab’ but the documentary by director Havana Marking is something of a con itself, less about the major heists the titular Pink Panthers pulled, but rather about the circumstances that made a life of crime an attractive and lucrative option for those involved, but no less a criminal one as well.
Employing a variety of stylistic tics that could’ve easily overwhelmed the movie including animation (to mask the identity of the Pink Panthers who allow themselves to be interviewed and re-dubbed by actors), and well chosen footage of news reports and sunny travelogues (utilized as an ironic counterpoint for what’s to come), ‘Smash & Grab’ does open with the sort of verve audiences would expect. Actual surveillance footage plays on screen of the Pink Panthers brazenly robbing a jewelry store in Dubai, driving two cars through an empty mall and smashing right into the front doors of the shop, grabbing what they came for, and peeling out before cops can even arrive on the scene. This job serves as one part of the bookends for the doc, as Marking is less concerned with minutiae of how the job was pulled, and more curious about the backgrounds of the men involved.
And so what unfolds is the inside story of a famous group of high profile thieves and not a chronicle of criminality (which may be disappointing to some who pick up this movie based on its title alone), but once that approach is accepted, viewers will encounter a rather fascinating tale. In essence, the collapse of Yugoslavia following the death of Josip Broz Tito and the brutal civil war that followed when Slobodan Milošević took power, led to a country that was torn apart internally and isolated externally. Trade sanctions effectively stopped the flow of all goods and gave rise to the black market, and once the taste for smuggling — and the plentiful money that came with it — took hold, it allowed a group like the Pink Panthers to flourish. And they did.
As recounted by two members themselves (identities obscured), and by police officials in France and Switzerland, a large but mysterious collective formed that organized heists all across Europe, eventually spreading to the Middle East and Japan as well. Even by the thieves hired to do the work, the hierarchy and names of the people who got the gigs, remained unknown. But professionalism was key, and long cons were employed for months if it meant scoring access to anything that would make their jobs easier. While it was mostly a boys club, both sexes agree that women were crucial, and were often able to obtain key information on the targets for the theft, because it just wasn’t assumed they could possibly be duplicitous. Diamonds and jewels were the items of choice because they could be moved easily, quickly and are nearly impossible to trace. But most eye-opening is the revelation by former Yugoslavian security official Bozidar Spasic, that their government handed these known criminals passports to travel so that they could commit their misdeeds elsewhere, and bring the cash back home to spend.
A combination of history, the allure of easy money, the scheming and planning required to pull jobs, the international settings and an account of the rise and (temporary) fall of the group….it’s pretty easy to understand why Danny Boyle sees a feature film in this material. But the good news is that the original documentary is compelling all on its own. Sharply cut together by Marking, while some of the aesthetic choices wear out their welcome (the animated sequences almost wear out their welcome), she keeps things moving in the brisk film that weaves the aforementioned narrative and thematic threads with ease. ‘Smash & Grab’ just isn’t about stealing valuables, but it’s also about men and women who had their lives and future stolen from them by war and circumstance and found another way to survive.
Genuinely captivating and intriguing, “Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers” puts together a remarkable tale that goes past simply judging it’s subjects, and tries to find their motivation, without ever rationalizing what they’ve done. And as such, it’s a richer portrait than this kind of story might otherwise have, and if Danny Boyle does make his movie, on that level, he’ll have a decent standard to match. [B]
“Smash And Grab: The Story Of The Pink Panthers” was released on DVD by Music Box Films earlier this month.