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'The Vault' Review: A bank job worth investing in

Director Jaume Balagueró Spanish heist film 'The Vault' satisfyingly fills the gap between 'Ocean's' and 'Mission: Impossible' installments.

Thom (Freddie Highmore), Lorraine (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and James (Sam Riley) survey the entrance to a bank vault they must enter without alerting hundreds of police standing by to arrest them.
(Image: © Saban Films)

Our Verdict

In 'The Vault,' director Jaume Balagueró stages a muscular, thrilling heist that only falls flat when it takes itself too seriously.

For

  • * Highmore is fully believable as a bored engineering prodigy, and Cunningham could play wizened authority fogures forever.
  • * Balagueró gives the film an authentic international flavor that refreshes some of the conventions of its genre.

Against

  • * The film's sense of anticipation for what's coming sometimes strains credulity for its complicated plot.
  • * Composer Arnau Bataller leans to heavily on some Hans Zimmer-like themes to overstate the intensity of what should be a fun heist.

The Vault scratches an itch left in the wake of both the Ocean’s and Mission: Impossible films, an international heist with impossible stakes that one-ups each previous challenge with a new one as an eclectic cast wrestles simultaneously with those twists and turns in the plan and the personalities that clash along the way. Director Jaume Balagueró (Rec) mounts a handsome, intense thriller that falls flat only when it starts to take itself too seriously, while actors from the U.K. (Freddie Highmore, Liam Cunningham, Sam Riley), France (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and Spain (Luis Tosar) jockey to pull off a bank robbery that constantly reminds its characters — and the audience itself — that simple solutions are often the best way to fix complicated problems.

Cunningham (Game of Thrones) and Riley (Maleficent) play Walter and James, a seeker of fortune and his former special-ops partner exploring centuries-old shipwrecks to locate the last piece they believe will lead them to an unimaginable fortune. Just as Walter and James find it in a sunken Spanish galleon, the authorities arrive and confiscate their bounty in an impregnable bank vault, though they’re unaware of the value of what they inadvertently recovered. With time ticking down until archaeologists search through the bounty, Walter reaches out to a promising young engineer named Thom (Highmore) whom he believes can help them gain access to the vault, and then figure out how to use the recovered treasure to locate the even bigger payday. Intrigued by the opportunity — and bored from lucrative offers for corporate gigs after he graduates from university — Thom throws in and they begin planning.

Unfortunately, the team soon discovers what they’re up against: a sealed vault in the basement of the bank of Spain, with a complicated alarm system that will flood it with water if triggered. But as the 2010 World Cup gets underway, driving people into the streets outside the building and providing possible cover, Walter, James, Thom and their teammates Simon (Tosar), Lorraine (Bergès-Frisbey) and Klaus (Axel Stein) race into action to figure out a way to infiltrate the bank without setting off the alarms — that is, if they can get past the dozens of armed guards being led by security expert Gustavo (José Coronado) who will stop ap nothing to apprehend them.

Like many other heist movies cut from this particular cloth, it’s best not to look too closely at some of the details surrounding the impregnable vault the thieves are trying to enter, much less ones that bring together this odd bunch of would-be criminal geniuses. (As much because of the pandemic as just the general ravages of time, learning that, say, the vault was originally designed “70 years ago” means virtually nothing when you’re trying to figure out how people in the 1930s — excuse me, the 1950s — could develop this monstrosity that seems to balance on the head of a pin and utilize a complex water-delivery system to, one assumes, destroy its contents if violated.) Walter and James do acquire the “key” leading them to this lost treasure; surely they could have snapped a pic with their iPhone before the cops confiscated it, eliminating the need to break in and go through all of this trouble? Not to mention, it’s fun watching this super-smart kid Thom outwit all of these traps they are navigating, but the theme that emerges is “there’s a simple way to do everything,” so you start to feel a bit like these seasoned treasure hunters surely could have figured out some of it for themselves.

Nevertheless, all of the requisite parts of a compelling heist are here: irresistible fortune, an insanely secure location, a team of uniquely-gifted experts, an adversary 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. In fact, the only element that sort of overstates its assistance is the score by Arnau Bataller, which relies heavily on Hans Zimmer-like strains of intensity that it begins to make the whole thing seem more serious than it is. After all, these are people literally robbing a bank because of “passion” — thrill seeking as a way of life — so even if the risks are high, it feels like it should be, or at least sound, more fun. 

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,  especially opposite Bergès-Frisbey, who feels like she’s working in that Lea Seydoux tough-with-a-heart-of-gold mode. Cunningham could dine out on roles like this for the next 20 years and I wouldn’t tire of them — gruff but compassionate, authoritative without being resolute — and much to my excitement, the movie suggests there’s room for him to return for another one. Riley has been a bit of an underappreciated quantity since he debuted in Anton Corbijn’s Control in 2007, and even if he can’t quite sell us on being an Olympic-level swimmer with that gravelly smoker’s voice, his well-rounded performance here only highlights how much more he should be in movies.

Again, in the absence of, say, a new Mission: Impossible installment, it’s a lot of fun watching actors walk an audience through the many, many reasons why no one under any circumstances could get into that place — and even if they do, they still have to get past the moat filled with alligators trained to fire machine guns! — and Balagueró levels up considerably with a film that feels ambitious and expansive and only takes itself a little too seriously. Set in 2010, it also hilariously sort of demands the perspective of a person who can predict the future, or provide for a tremendous amount of serendipity for certain events to come together. But then again, you’re not watching a heist movie to watch people do something badly, but do it well; and even if the characters in The Vault just barely gets away their crimes, the filmmakers offer enough charm for us to forgive them when and where they probably shouldn’t.

The Vault will be available on VOD March 26th!