When the manhunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bombers happened in April 2013, some observers noted how all the shootouts and hideouts seemed like elements from Hollywood action films. Such is the power of the image. Cinema often defines how the public thinks crime should look. Then photojournalism and broadcast news redefines it, on those rare occasions when a murder, a robbery, or an arrest is captured on film or video.
Havana Marking’s documentary Smash & Grab: The Story Of The Pink Panthers is partly about how movies influence criminals, and vice-versa. “The Pink Panthers”—given their name by the British press, in reference to the Peter Sellers comedies—are an active ring of jewel thieves, mostly from the former Yugoslavia, who since 2000 have, by some estimations, committed more than 500 robberies across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, stealing upward of $300 million. Their methods are both sophisticated and crude. Believing that “any robbery that lasts more than 22 seconds is a risk,” they spend months casing jewelry stores—often using a beautiful woman to go in and examine the merchandise, posing as a socialite—then hit their marks in a blitz, letting brute force and the power of numbers overwhelm employees and customers. Because they try hard not to injure anyone—and because they’re only stealing baubles from the wealthy to sell to the wealthy—the Pinks have become folk heroes to some, maybe because the stories of their crimes rival the most sensational pulp fiction.
Marking doesn’t romanticize the Pinks in Smash & Grab, though she does try to understand them. Nearly a third of this documentary covers the past 50 years of Yugoslavian/Serbian history, describing how a multicultural wonderland was ripped apart by factionalism, then handed over to gangsters. Marking landed extended interviews with two of the thieves—one male, one female, both with their identities obscured through rotoscope animation—and the pair talk about how their homeland changed, necessitating their extra-legal entrepreneurial ingenuity.
Smash & Grab also features interviews with some of the members of law enforcement who’ve been on the Pink Panthers’ trail for the past decade-plus, including one Serbian detective who’s unmoved by the Pinks’ Robin Hood rep. (“We all made choices,” she says. “I could’ve become a prostitute, but I’m not.”) Another cop—who has posters for Heat and Miami Vice up in his office—is more admiring about how this gang has applied the techniques of modern terrorism and classic heist movies to what’s been a largely bloodless game of cat-and-mouse.
This is all fascinating, and Marking (who previously made the very good documentary Afghan Star) does her best to keep it lively, mixing in actual security-camera footage and animated re-creations, along with pieces of old tourist promotions, newsreels, and industrial films. But Smash & Grab’s overall tone is too reserved, given the subject matter. There are some humanizing moments in the interviews with the Pinks themselves, including when the woman says she hates changing her appearance from job to job, because she’s losing touch with her actual identity, and when the man says that even in his current resort hideaway, he’s always looking over his shoulder. But perhaps Smash & Grab is a victim of the movies that inspired its subjects. Even with the occasional video of Pink Panther cars crashing through the glass doors of a shopping mall to steal jewels, the movie lacks excitement and emotion. It’s entertaining as far as it goes, but this doc’s greatest value may be as research material for the next great international caper film.