I love me a good heist movie. Seeing how a band of criminals can pull off stealing a bunch of money is my version of a good time (and maybe if I watch enough of these movies, I can figure out how to do it myself…). So when I saw that there was a documentary just posted on Netflix Watch Instant about a legendary jewel thief ring I was instantly interested in seeing just how infamous these people were.
This documentary traces the origins and eventual capture of a band of jewel thieves, called the Pink Panthers. They originated from Yugoslavia which turns out to be this post-Communist criminal hub. These anonymous jewel thieves would target high-powered jewelry stores across Europe and Arab countries. They were ingenious in their execution and in their anonymous nature of the operation. The documentary interviews a representative of each step of the process including the man who does the actual thieving, the beard (usually a beautiful woman who is made to look like she belongs in an expensive jewelry store), the grinder of the diamonds to reshape them, and the exporter. Each person has no clue as to the identity of anyone else in the circle and the nature of their position in it. They are all obscured by computer animation and voice modulators. This circle of heist were protected by Yugoslavia’s laws against extradition and persecuting criminals within their borders. But every heist ring must come to an end. With unknown leadership, recruitment of people who can’t do their jobs very well and the high-profile of their criminal organization, thieves are being caught left and right.
This is a fascinating portrait of citizens of a country that survived for decades on the strength of their criminals. Yugoslavia was left to rot after Russia abandoned them in the wake of the fall of communism. Basic goods skyrocketed and unemployment was rampant. The only way someone could make money was by employing themselves in the black market. That is how most of the people from the Pink Panthers first learned their craft. They were importing jeans at a signficant mark up one moment and stealing from jewelry the next. The officials of Yugoslavia encouraged criminality because it boosted their revenue streams and commerce. So they offered sanctuary for these notorious criminals that were wanted all over Europe. As an American, it is hard for to imagine an entire country being okay with this activity. Sure some sects of the population will always see the gray line between crime and going straight, but a whole country is just insane. They must have been really desperate for some kind revenue.
While the subject matter is interesting and the interview subjects have some great insight into the process of robbing a jewelry store (I actively took notes so that I could do the same thing very soon… wink), the execution was sometimes lacking. The main reason for this is their lack of visual material. All the documentarian had to work with was security footage, interviews with people willing to be photographed, audio interviews of people who didn’t, and cartoon recreations of certain actions that the interview subjects engaged in. This desert of material led to repetitive images, animation made solely to pad out the running time, and other cheats that were poorly hidden. This makes for a boring documentary at times.
Animation is a deceptively hard thing to get right even in the age of computers. The animation in this movie was clearly done on a miniscule budget and yet they still seemed to be wasting their money. There is no detail in the animation sequences, no interesting technique or perspective. There is only the most bland and by the numbers animation. This was probably the worst part about this movie. It distracts from what is being said or happening, by being just so terrible.
If I could take this story and make a fictional account of it, I would be a millionaire. The problem with this movie is that they decided to make a dry, functional documentary of this great event in many people’s lives. It leaves you cold and unwanting to carry on.