The protagonists of Quick Change are so desperate to leave New York City that they finance their exit with a million-dollar bank heist. The meticulously planned robbery is executed with minimal problems and maximum cleverness. The criminals even outfox a veteran police chief (Jason Robards) and the entire SWAT team waiting outside the bank. With bundles of cash taped to their bodies, mastermind Grimm (Bill Murray), his gal, Phyllis (Geena Davis), and his best buddy, Loomis (Randy Quaid), head toward a new life in Fiji. All they have to do is escape from New York.
Unfortunately for them, this is the pre-Giuliani, pre-Bloomberg New York City; it’s that scrappy animal the President of the United States once told to “drop dead,” and it’s not giving up its denizens without a fight. It will throw an ever-escalating series of After Hours-style mishaps at the potential escapees, roadblocks they could have easily avoided had they been more observant. Quick Change chooses this lack of observation as a theme. In its opening scene, Grimm, dressed as a clown for the robbery, exits the subway in front of a huge advertisement for the old MTA “Train to the Plane” Kennedy Airport subway service. This would seem the easiest route of escape, but it’s never considered. Grimm’s crew will use a car, a cab, a bus, an airport luggage cart, and their tired feet in their suspenseful bid to reach the promised land at JFK.
The police are also not very observant, despite being led by Robards’s Chief Rotzinger, a man sharp enough to have stopped serial killers and Mafiosi in the past. Grimm is able to escape the bank in a different disguise, yet he uses the exact same voice he used when speaking with the chief during hostage negotiations. In fact, Grimm is downright loquacious while executing his escape, to the point where he should have been recognized and collared immediately. The lack of observation motif continues with construction workers unable to remember which way a street sign was pointing and Loomis’s accidental pressing of his car horn at the least opportune moment. Ironically, the one person who’s fully paying attention is a poor cabbie (Tony Shalhoub) whose lack of English skills prohibit him from revealing what he knows.
It would seem that the New Yorkers presented in Quick Change are all somehow distracted by the single-minded pursuits that fill their heads. But the film offers a credible reason why people are so zoned out: The city has driven them crazy with the demands it puts on the business and the pleasures of daily life. The police chief is so pressured to relive his former glory after his most recent failures that he questions his (usually correct) instincts at every turn. The normally sharp Grimm gets suckered by a fake good Samaritan (Jamey Sheridan) who robs him, and though the taped bank money is clearly visible on Grimm’s person, the robber misses it completely and settles for four dollars. The bank patrons are so in their own worlds that they ignore the clown with the gun in their midst. And in the film’s most amusing example of people with blinders on, a bus driver hilariously played by Philip Bosco takes his adherence to the rules to almost psychotic extremes.
Quick Change requires a leap of faith from the audience. It asks us to immediately bond with and root for these criminals as the good guys despite knowing almost nothing about their motivations. They just want to leave a city that, in its numerous cinematic incarnations, has given plenty of reasons for escaping it. The film is helped by Murray, who co-directed with screenwriter Howard Franklin. Murray’s deadpan and sense of smarts are very well-used here. Davis is a fine emotional anchor as the love interest with the big, easily predictable secret. Quaid’s over-the-top rube act wears thin, but is not without its moments.
The one thing that we do know about Grimm is that he was a city planner. Early in the film, he points to an ad for a high-rise building and asks why the city would destroy an old, historic neighborhood for it. The hints of impending gentrification are evident, and though Quick Change doesn’t delve further, that moment sticks with the viewer. Grimm and company have to rob a bank in order to leave New York City. Nowadays, you’d have to rob one just to live there.
Odie Henderson hasn’t robbed any banks, but he occasionally steals the spotlight at RogerEbert.com, Movie Mezzanine, and Big Media Vandalism.