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Movie Review: 'The Vault'

Directed by: Jaume Balagueró
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Liam Cunningham, Sam Riley
Available on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime
Rated R, 118 minutes

“Because it’s there,” the famed mountaineer George Mallory is rumored to have said when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Nearly a century later, his legendary quip remains a powerful ethos not just in the sporting world but also for anybody seeking to accomplish things that have never been done before. In many ways it’s the guiding principle of “The Vault,” Spanish director Jaume Balagueró’s (“REC”) new heist thriller, even if Mallory’s name is never mentioned.

Famke Janssen, Fredddie Highmore, and Sam Riley star in “The Vault.” (Courtesy photo)

“The Vault” finds a small salvage team attempting the impossible: breaking into the legendary vault of the Bank of Spain, right in the heart of Madrid. With no blueprints available to study and only rumors of the vault’s craftily engineered safeguards, team leader Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham, “Hunger”) and his crew have no idea how to infiltrate the bank, but are dead set on getting inside. The contents of the vault, which contain a clue to the location of Sir Francis Drake’s long-lost treasure, represent for Walter a breakthrough in a treasure hunt that has consumed decades of his life.

The team’s way inside comes in the surprising form of a 22-year-old college student, Thom (Freddie Highmore, “The Good Doctor”), whose engineering genius has garnered him a series of high-profile job offers with oil companies around the world, but who, like many students his age, has yet to choose a career path. Given the unexpected and intriguing opportunity to take part in a daring heist, Thom agrees to help Walter, setting off a series of high-stakes perils that test both his engineering prowess and his strength under pressure.

Set against the backdrop of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which Spain ultimately won, “The Vault” creates a curious juxtaposition between the various forms passion takes. As the citizens of Madrid gather in massive crowds on city streets to watch the games, Walter and his team sneak around rooftops and subway tunnels and ventilation shafts, driven to their elaborate and risky schemes in service of Walter’s Ahab-like quest for Drake’s treasure. “We can’t explain our passions,” Walter tells Thom, pointing to a crowd of World Cup revelers on the street. “A million people gathering to cheer for men they don’t know, to put a ball in a net. Unnecessary, unessential—but it means everything.”

That contrast—between Walter’s decades-long hunt, the Spanish national team’s hard-fought path to the championship game, and Thom’s uncertainty about his own path in life—gives some heft to the otherwise formulaic heist plotline, but the movie doesn’t make anything of these parallels. At one point Walter asks Thom why he agreed to come along on such a dangerous mission and Thom simply answers, “Passion,” but his answer rings hollow; it’s the first time we’ve heard any indication that he feels anything more than a polite interest in the heist, let alone a passion for it. That same hollowness resurfaces in the movie’s afterthought of a romantic subplot, between Thom and the mysterious sleight-of-hand expert Lorraine (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”).

The problem, in both cases, is that Freddie Highmore’s Thom has no presence. Despite being the protagonist, Thom is a flat character, his knowledge for all things mechanical a handy plot device dressed up as character development (one whole scene consists of Thom entering phrases like “most secure vault in the world” and “Bank of Spain miracle engineering” into a search engine). Highmore is an underwhelming lead besides, his affable and unchanging facial expression etherizing any emotion that might otherwise exist in a scene. It’s as if he ended up on a movie set by accident; he looks like he’s just happy to be included.

Of course, if you’re watching “The Vault” for its performances or thematic weight, you’ve already missed the point. What the movie lacks in personality, it at least makes up for in suspense, offering a handful of well-designed set pieces and action sequences; the heist, which by itself takes up nearly a third of the runtime, is intricate and tense and satisfying. “The Vault” may be forgettable as soon as the credits start rolling—heck, even the title is bland—but its two hours pass by with ease, inoffensive and just interesting enough. If the movie teaches us anything, it’s that “because it’s there” isn’t just a mantra for people doing the extreme. Sometimes it’s a shrug of the shoulders.

Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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