Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Great Train Robbery

Luke Evans as Bruce Reynolds.
Premise:  On August 8, 1963, Bruce Richard Reynolds masterminded the biggest heist in British history when he and 14 others stole £2.6 million from a Royal Mail Train. To put his crime in perspective, that haul would be worth approximately £51 million today. The Great Train Robbery, a 2013 miniseries, covers the the crime's preparation, execution, and investigation in two parts. The first half, subtitled A Robber's Tale, introduces Reynolds (Luke Evans) as a criminal more interested in the challenge of the crime--and the camaraderie with his follow robbers--than in the loot. Reynolds' meticulous planning pays off when the heist is executed almost to perfection. However, the aftermath is filled with unforeseen events and careless mistakes. The minseries' second half, A Copper's Tale, focuses on the investigation by Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler and the Flying Squad (a special robbery division in London's Metropolitan Police). A shrewd loner nicknamed "One Day" for his success in nabbing criminals, Butler (Jim Broadbent) navigates political interference as he pushes his team to follow up every lead and capture all 15 gang members.

Running Time: 180 minutes (two 90-minute parts).

Status:  It originally aired on the BBC in December 2013. It's available on DVD in the U.S. and can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Robert Ryan's 2010 novel Signal Red, which was based on the real-life crime, served as the basis for the miniseries. Several of the robbers and the coppers wrote autobiographies, to include Crossing the Line: The Autobiography of a Thief (1995) by Bruce Reynolds and No Fixed Address (1973) by Butler's deputy, Detective Inspector Frank Williams. (Spoiler alert!) Reynolds eluded capture for five years before Butler tracked him down, spending much of that time in Mexico and Canada. He served 10 years in prison, a shorter sentence than many of the others caught earlier. Two of his fellow criminals, Ronald Biggs and Charlie Wilson, escaped from prison. Wilson was eventually caught, but Biggs underwent plastic surgery and settled in Brazil where he could not be extradited. At age 71, he voluntarily returned to Great Britain--and was promptly arrested again. Incidentally, singer Phil Collins played gang member Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster.

Our Review: The first half of The Great Train Robbery is a breezy caper film grounded by Luke Evans' compelling portrayal of the fascinating Reynolds. It would have been nice to get to know some of the other characters better, but there are too many of them and the compact 90-minute running time doesn't have a minute to spare. The second half slows down the pace, as befits Butler's methodical investigation. The detective, superbly played by Broadbent, remains something of an enigma, though his dedication to pursuing justice is never in doubt. Although The Great Train Robbery is a first-rate affair, it does glorify Reynolds and his colleagues, glossing over the more violent aspects of the crime. In real life, train conductor Jack Mills experienced a traumatic brain injury as a result of being struck by one of the gang.

Grade: A-.

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