Synopsis – When an engineer learns of a mysterious, impenetrable fortress hidden under the Bank of Spain, he joins a crew of master thieves who plan to steal the legendary lost treasure while the whole country watches the World Cup. With thousands of soccer fans cheering in the streets, and security forces closing in, the crew has just minutes to pull off the score of a lifetime.
My Take – Considering its astounding success, I think I am selling it short by stating that many of us are keenly waiting to head back to Spain for the fifth part of Money Heist aka La casa de papel, the Spanish crime drama television series created by Álex Pina, which raised the bar for future entries into the heist genre.
Until then we are supposed to feel satisfied with the latest from director Jaume Balagueró, who cleverly revived the found footage genre with REC in 2007, who has taken up the responsibility of setting up a heist in the Southwestern European country, in the form of a handsomely mounted thriller that falls flat only when it starts to take itself too seriously.
While certainly not a game changing film within the genre, it sure is a curious beast that borrows heavily from other films and puts style over substance by offering a handful of well-designed set pieces and action sequences, and a heist, which by itself takes up nearly a third of the runtime, that is intricate, tense and in the end, satisfying. Most importantly, it makes the most of its 2010 World Cup and Madrid setting.
Sure, it never seems like the film is trying to compete with something like the Oceans 11 series, but there’s little here that can be described as surprising or shocking as director Balagueró, takes an international cast through comfortingly familiar plot beats, each a slight, barely noticeable iteration on the last. Thankfully despite its familiarity, the film manages to keep you engaged with ease for its run time of 118 minutes that rarely feels redundant.
The story follows Thom Laybrick (Freddie Highmore), a British engineering student with a genius IQ who has everyone from Big Tech to Oil Companies chomping at the bit to offer him the world. But, Thom has a bit of a social and political conscience, and wants to do something exciting and enticing, something which Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham), a wealthy salvager and treasure hunter, promises to offer.
Sometime ago, during a deep dive into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Spain, Walter’s team which also includes his second-in-command, James (Sam Riley), an ex-special ops officer, ended up discovering a long-lost, sunken ship known as the Virgin of Guadalupe filled with treasure. Unfortunately for them, their discovery immediately became the de facto property of the Spanish government, who after winning the court case against Walter, moved the treasure to the well-fortified Bank of Spain.
Now together with James, master of disguises Lorraine (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), muscle Simon (Luis Tosar), and tech support Klaus (Axel Stein), Walter plots to break into one of Spain’s most secure locales, to get back what he believes he rightfully owns, and for that he needs Thom to crack the impenetrable mechanism holding their goods. But that is not the only hitch as they have only ten days to pull off the heist as the security is dispersed due to ongoing 2010 FIFA World Cup.
All of the requisite parts of a compelling heist are here in the form of an irresistible fortune, an insanely secure location, a team of uniquely-gifted experts, an adversary in Gustavo (José Coronado) who anticipates their every move, and at least two obstacles that make someone storm out of a meeting convinced that the whole plan can’t be accomplished. Here, director Balagueró does a serviceable job at capturing the genre’s dashing sense of adventure as his film is a single-minded heist thriller that devotes the majority of its running time to detailing the complex plan the characters devise, the complications that arise during the way, and the thrilling heist itself split, which is split across two intense and lengthy sequences during the film’s second and third acts.
He keeps a firm grasp on pace while implementing a sly mixture of edits and stylistic frames. While his no-nonsense approach to the storytelling may turn some off, but it’s this incredible attention to detail that makes the film so engaging: we always know where the characters are, what they’re trying to do, and what stakes are at hand. The Madrid setting also offers one of the film’s biggest strengths, coupled with being set during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This clearly evokes the mood in the city at that period in time as Spain won the World Cup.
The backdrop of World Cup matches to stage a daring heist is reminiscent of the iconic 60s caper The Italian Job, which of course used a football match as part of the distraction to help the crew get away with the gold bullion. The scale of the crowds in Madrid and sense of celebration across the city really shines through and the attention to detail in this regard is excellent.
Where the film mostly excels is in the set-pieces, which do feel genuinely exciting in patches, as a series of elaborate methods are used to get into the vault. These echo the Mission Impossible series and Oceans films in places, we are even treated to some joking references to the Oceans films. The set pieces show director Balagueró has an aptitude for staging action set-pieces.
That being said, I wish the writers had worked more on the characterizations. Any heist film is only as strong as its characters as the genre blurs the line between good and evil, as the people doing the heisting are often the ones the audience is rooting for despite knowing what they are doing is criminal.
Here, with the more prominent focus on Thom and Walter, the characterization of the rest of the team is almost non-existent, with James suffering in particular. While he does show his disdain for Thom from the offset, his subsequent motivations and actions do almost come out of nowhere and so he is hard to care much for. Likewise Lorraine is clearly intended as a love interest for Thom, but we know so little of her background. We also Margaret (Famke Janssen), a mysterious member of the British Government and this aspect feels quite tagged on and out of place, not giving Janssen nearly enough to do for an actor of her caliber.
Another issue with the film is that no one has a compelling reason to be part of this job beyond loyalty or Thom’s claim of wanting a challenge, though we know it was really Lorraine. Money doesn’t appear to be an issue for anyone involved, except maybe Lorraine, and it really pushes you to wonder if this is all done for a thrill or not?
Thankfully, the cast do their best. Freddie Highmore is not only the film’s erstwhile star but its producer, and he makes it easy to believe that Thom is a bored genius who discovers an excitement he never experienced before he started staging heists. On the other end, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is all swagger and style to Highmore’s bumbling nerd. The chemistry between the two is one of the highlights of the film.
Liam Cunningham makes for a perfect captain and once again brings his no-bullshit advisor/mentor side to the role. Unfortunately, Sam Riley is once again underutilized, while Famke Janssen is wasted. In other roles, Luis Tosar, Axel Stein and José Coronado are good. On the whole, ‘The Vault’ is a formulaic yet engaging heist thriller which despite its familiarity manages to entertain.
Directed – Jaume Balagueró
Rated – R
Run Time – 118 minutes