The world of the thief has been truncated and amplified by the bright lights of Hollywood. Box office grosses have swelled on the legacy of Bourne, the car chases of Italian jobs, and face-offs between Pacino and DeNiro. And though not as extravagantly choreographed, the world outside the shine of Hollywood has its own dubious deeds carried out by desperate, pretty, confused people. The documentary Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers chooses to target such a group, the Yugoslavian-based Pink Panthers.
Through a combination of animation, re-enactment, and surveillance video, Smash and Grab follows the lavish tale of this group of international jewel thieves. The story begins with a flashy heist, complete with cars going through glass doors and pulsating electronic music — the magic of Hollywood taking a backseat to actual catbird antics with security cameras playing the role of cinematographer. Director Havana Marking’s tale can’t help but emulate the flashy streak of motion pictures, as the Pink Panthers — for all the muscle and simplicity of their task — are a well-prepared and over-the-top criminal organization that delivers all the fantasy of film.
The Pink Panthers are an organization born of desperation, but they’re not desperate. Members carefully scout locations, use beautiful women as lures, and note strategic positions and prized loot. They also use the chaos of war-torn Slavic nations as cover from international law agencies, to protect themselves once the job of pillaging richer European neighbors is complete.
Marking carefully tries not to glamorize the group, but it’s impossible with this kind of story. When Chief Inspector Yan Glassey compares the cat and mouse by pointing out a carefully hung post of Heat (after referencing the lynched effigy of a stuffed Pink Panther given to him by colleagues), it’s clear that the organization’s innumerable heists have garnered them respect as well as disdain. It’s a movie trope that’s all too familiar, but it’s still achieves a greater gravitas when steeped in reality.
While the reality of the tale is part of the film’s allure, it’s also Smash & Grab’s Achilles heel, revealing many of the documentary’s weaknesses. There are multiple films wrapped into the narrative, muddying the story of the Pink Panthers. The work of the Pink Panthers is gritty and criminal, but it is still as much about waiting and patience as any other aspect of life — this, however, is glossed over. Tying in the actions and influence of the Pink Panthers to the end of Yugoslavia and the appeal of riches from the fallout of authoritarian Josip Tito’s death in 1980 is a necessary tangent, but the story threatens to be overtaken by the ethnic wars that gripped Yugoslavia’s six republics. It may be as humanely real as Smash & Grab gets, complicating one story with the burden of another (such is real life). Furthering the morass are the duties of gender roles, of loyalty to wealth and gang, and of the pursuit of truth in the face of danger. As a documentary playing mirror to the world of Hollywood, Smash & Grab finds itself mired in the same lack of focus as any big budget heist film.
The greatest failing isn’t the raw material, but Marking’s directorial decisions: despite early signs to the contrary, she eventually gives in to the extravagance of storytelling. The essence of Smash & Grab — survival and the act of doing what is necessary to live from one day to the next — is inherently romantic, but Marking falls into the same pitfalls that Hollywood does, turning criminals into anti-heroes and giving longing more power than civility.
The documentary has its moments of clarity and honesty but its richly textured story gives way to gimmicks and indulgence. We fall for the pretty woman, ache at the scenes of civil war, and jones for criminal life. In the end, Smash & Grab feels like a documentary only in name; its scenes are just a movie-star short of being the next ‘based on a true story’ smash.