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MOVIE REVIEW

The Robber

The licentiousness of the long-distance runner

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By Janice Page
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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Now we know why there aren’t any banks on Heartbreak Hill.

According to “The Robber,’’ an artful German film about a career thief who is also an elite marathon runner (or maybe the other way around), the same obsessive and unflinching behavior that fuels the endurance athlete can also come in handy when robbing banks. Such a marriage could even be seen as practical: You eliminate the need for a getaway car; foot chases can be sponsored by Nike.

It’s a premise that might seem ripe for comedy, but “The Robber’’ is no joke. Armed with a screenplay adapted from a Martin Prinz novel based on a true story, writer-director Benjamin Heisenberg has crafted something as serious, quietly determined, and surprisingly compelling as his criminal protagonist. There are many smart winks at caper-movie cliches here. Whenever you think you spot a familiar flawed romance blossoming or a predictable chase sequence unspooling, Heisenberg tweaks it until it hobbles around like a bad ankle he has no intention of nursing.

The film begins with Johann (Andreas Lust) in prison for attempted robbery. It’s clear from the treadmill in his cell and the determination in his eyes that he’s a man on a mission, which we quickly learn involves both setting marathon records and committing serial bank robberies, the latter performed in sneakers and a rubber mask. Johann moves in with a social worker (Franziska Weisz). A childhood friend, she eventually sleeps with him (see flawed romance cliche, above).

Minor characters come and go but this is essentially a two-person drama; and, really, for much of the movie it’s just the one pulse beating, abnormally slow. So if you’re looking for a high-octane thriller, this probably isn’t it — though it does pack a subtle, effective rush that runners might liken to a packet of GU ingested at mile 18.

Sometimes the action feels far-fetched, as when Johann is running through a crowded park in his rubber mask or easily evading an army of police. But it’s easy to suspend disbelief when Heisenberg rewards us with small, telling surprises. The counterpoint to many a frantic chase scene, for example, is Johann driving calmly over a patch of grass to avoid an everyday traffic jam.

That’s not a conventional caper movie slipping into a pair of running shoes for an easy change of pace. That’s a fresh approach, with legs.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

THE ROBBER

Directed by: Benjamin Heisenberg

Written by: Heisenberg and Martin Prinz

Starring: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz.

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 97 minutes

Unrated (brief nudity and sexual situations, mature themes)

In German, with subtitles

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