The “smash” in Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers is made quite literal in the recurring image of shattered glass strewn throughout the documentary’s stark animated recreations and real archival footage of robberies. Opening with a breathless scene of burglars looting a jewelry store amid a dizzying street celebration, the film threatens to rest on the “How to Steal Millions and Look Good Doing It” Hollywood veneer of a Steven Soderbergh Ocean’s movie, with the shards of glass vaguely representing a fractured justice system that may never end up catching the thieves. But director Havana Marking takes the motif as far as it can go, eventually undermining the audience’s preconceptions of glitzy showbiz capers.
During the mid 1980s and early ’90s, the former Yugoslavia, broken apart by ethnic tension in the wake of the death of its beloved communist president, Josip Broz Tito, erupted in a string of conflicts as independence spread through a handful of states. Rampant criminal activity began to surface, but with a strong political bent, as factions assumed loyalty to either the old or new government—and because of this the Pink Panthers emerged, robbing millions’ worth of jewelry at home before branching out to Europe, Japan, and the Middle East. Over time, as shown through unsettling but fascinating surveillance footage, the crimes of the Pink Panthers unfold with increasingly methodical precision and illuminate a growing ambition in their targets.
Underlining the uneasy mixture of unsettlement and fascination in the footage, Marking interviews two actual Panthers as they detail their meticulous process—interviews that are laced with black humor and reveal the Panthers weighing the very severe implications of a crime. After one Panther, identified as “Lela,” explains how she continually changed her appearance for different jobs, Marking, her preconceptions about heists apparently not so different from ours, points out how the disguises sound like fun. Lela, however, quickly shoots back with rancor about the ritual since it led her to feel insecure about her true self. Consequently, the film’s argument isn’t that the criminals depicted here commit robberies because their genius simply entitles them to, but more from a Raskolnikov-like cultural nihilism, their livelihood shaped by their country’s tumultuous, psychologically dense history.
If Marking does occasionally succumb to the pitfalls of the mock-thriller kitsch she slyly dismantles, it’s made up for in a wry and experimental visual style that satirically paints a vibrant crime fantasia: hiring actors to perform the transcripts of the Panther interviews, and then animating over them to present a candy-colored dream of wealth and luxury. But the Panthers’ resolute paranoia of being caught suggests otherwise, countering the exultance they once felt in a time of triumph, but now felt exclusively by the law enforcement closing in on them. The shards of broken glass result in not being the product of Danny Ocean’s cock-grabbing swagger; it’s the shattered sanity of political saboteurs reflected in an equally broken society.