Film Review: Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers

Good subject, bad handling.

Jewel thieves, from Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise to Marlene Dietrich in Desire to Melina Mercouri and her gang in Topkapi, have long been a favorite movie subject. Havana Marking’s documentary Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers purports to be a true-life detailing of such felons, but is far less engaging, And due to certain directorial choices, it also comes across as somewhat factually dubious.

About 30 years ago, when the former Yugoslavia was being dissolved due to ethnic tension and the death of President Tito, there was a parallel rise in crime (as well as independence) during this free-for-all period. The Pink Panthers emerged with high-profile heists which spread beyond their homeland to Europe, Japan and the Middle East (in a particularly brazen $15 million job in Dubai). Their methods could often be the most audacious imaginable; they even resorted to driving cars into luxury malls and through windows to get their loot. Although international police forces were bent on capturing them and tightening their net, these never-arrested Panthers enjoyed certain perks, as when a former Yugoslavian security official admits that he provided them with passports and aided them across borders so they wouldn’t steal in their own country, where, additionally, they would spend their ill-gotten gains.

It’s pretty fascinating stuff, what movies were made for, and Marking uses actual surveillance footage of the thieves which provide the most interesting moments. Unfortunately, although she scored interviews with actual Panther members, she chose to use some rather cheesy actors—who look like they hailed from a Balkan Central Casting call—to impersonate them, mouthing their words, and further botches things by throwing some particularly unappetizing very-1980s animation over their faces and surroundings which causes instant viewer recoil. Although the identity of these still unapprehended criminals, perforce, needed to be protected, the line between fact and auteurial license begins to seem literally blurred.

It’s funny how these real-life characters fall so strictly into movie cliché, ranging from the Catherine Zeta Jones-like temptress, the only woman in the crew, who literally seduces men in a variety of disguises to gain gem access, to the badass, been-there/seen-everything macho man with his mordantly studied account of events. Then there’s that ineffectual, hugely mustachioed Dubai police official—very Peter Sellers in ethnic mode—in a uniform so comically over-the-top with its gilded epaulettes and trimmings. These robbers liken themselves somehow to the exploits of Robin Hood, but in the awkward hands of Marking, the allusion is very fuzzy indeed.