You can bet your portfolio -- what's left of it -- that the makers of The Bank, an Australian techno thriller about a zillion-dollar stock-market scam, are counting on the vast ill will created by the Enron scandal, the WorldCom mess and the lesser offspring of corporate malfeasance to build a little box office for their movie here in America. If nothing else, ordinary citizens who've lost their life savings to boardroom swindlers can take pleasure in hissing at the film's crooked, soulless CEO every time his smug face appears on the screen, and they can rejoice when he gets his inevitable comeuppance -- provided they still have seven bucks for a ticket.
On the other hand, moviegoers feeling a new pinch of poverty might do just as well to dig out their old VHS tapes of Wall Street and shoot spitballs at Michael Douglas from the comfort of their sofas. That's because Simon O'Reilly, the ruthless international financier Anthony LaPaglia plays in The Bank, comes off as Gordon Gekko Light. And the young math whiz (David Wenham of The Lord of the Rings) O'Reilly catches in his web of corruption doesn't have anything like the maddening vulnerability of Gekko's ambitious protegé, played back in 1987 by Charlie Sheen. The killer instinct displayed by director Oliver Stone in Wall Street was almost as savage as his well-heeled villain's. Rookie Aussie filmmaker Robert Connolly doesn't quite know how to slash the jugular, or keep the suspense sizzling for 103 minutes. Like many Australian movies, this one is a bit obvious and a mite plodding -- as if it doesn't always trust us to connect the dramatic dots on our own.
However, The Bank has its moments, and like The Boiler Room, which chronicled the misdeeds of hungry young stockbrokers at a less-than-reputable firm, it raises some scary new cautions for the era of corporate greed and investor paranoia. For one thing, it suggests that an exceptionally gifted mathematician and computer geek like Wenham's Jim Doyle can, in the secrecy of his high-tech basement lab, come up with what his evil boss calls "the Holy Grail of economic theory" -- a fiendishly advanced computer model called BTSE (Bank Trading Simulation Experiment) that can predict the next major market crash and thus enable Melbourne's big, bad CentaBank to make untold billions on the eve of the catastrophe. This is, of course, the modus operandi employed by Ken Lay and company, and LaPaglia's amoral CEO doesn't give a second thought, either, to the lives and futures he will destroy. Assessing past victories over his competitors, the Osama bin Laden of the financial world boasts: "I cut off their heads and emptied their guts."
Our villain may not know a thing about chaos theory or the "fractal geometry" of Benoit Mandelbrot -- that's the province of his boy genius -- but he's pretty adept at spouting the old Gekko-style machismo. "I'm like God," O'Reilly shouts, "but with a better suit." Make no mistake: Greed is still good.
In case we don't grasp the social danger or the ethical gravity of such stuff, the movie provides guidelines aplenty. There's Michelle (Sibylla Budd), the beautiful young CentaBank executive who serves not just as the secretive Jim Doyle's bedmate, but as his conscience, constantly warning him about O'Reilly's dastardly schemes. We've got the "little people" in the form of a grief-stricken, working-class couple (Steve Rodgers and Mandy McElhinney) who don't just mourn the death of their son in a drowning directly linked to the cruelties of CentaBank, they bring suit. There's a relentless gloom-and-doom score by composer Alan John. And we've got the threatening look of the film. Director Connolly, production designer Luigi Pittorino and cinematographer Tristan Milani render the Melbourne financial district as an anti-human array of frigid glass skyscrapers, which conceal barren, postmodern offices fit only for robots.
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LaPaglia, who scored big last year with his vivid portrait of a police detective in another Australian feature, Lantana, makes for a pretty entertaining bad guy. We come to hate his expensive suits and impeccably knotted silk ties almost as much as the knowing sneer on his thin lips and his chilly demeanor. But some of the speeches Connolly requires of him veer into caricature: The first-time director can't resist fetching us a terrific shot on the noggin with his moral sledgehammer when a more subtle approach might have sufficed. Still, for anyone who remains hopping mad about the feudal arrogance of corporate executives, The Bank is likely to provide a little catharsis, particularly in the satisfying twist with which it ends. But it won't buy baby new shoes.