'Masterminds' brings botched 'Hillbilly Heist' to cinema

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Los Angeles (AFP) - If the bandits in crime caper "Masterminds" seem too stupid to be real, don't blame the scriptwriters -- this outlandish comedy-of-errors is almost entirely true.

It is a classic tale of robbery gone wrong, but Jared Hess' latest movie is more likely to be compared to "The Keystone Cops" than "Reservoir Dogs" when it hits US theaters on Friday.

"Masterminds" stars Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig in the story of the $17.3 million so-called Loomis Fargo Robbery, uncharitably nicknamed the "Hillbilly Heist" due to the southern, rural backgrounds of the main players.

"From the get-go, it seemed so crazy that they had stolen all this money but then they got caught because they were so ridiculous in how they were spending it," Hess told AFP.

"They made so many bad decisions it just seemed like it would make an outrageous comedy."

The film follows the misadventures of anti-hero David Ghantt, played by Galifianakis, as he pulls off the third-largest robbery in US history on October 4, 1997.

The trouble begins when Ghantt, a trusted armored-truck driver for Loomis Fargo, falls for security guard Kelly Campbell (Wiig).

After she quits her job, Campbell, egged on by local petty thief Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), persuades Ghantt to clean out the company's vault in Charlotte, North Carolina.

- Boring life -

"He was so bored with his life and just wanted adventure," said Hess, whose previous movies include 2004's "Napolean Dynamite" and "Nacho Libre" in 2006.

"He was into reading Tom Clancy novels, watching 'James Bond' movies. He signed up to work at Loomis Fargo thinking that was gonna be a fun life and it turned out to be very boring.

"He and Kelly Campbell would always talk about what they would do with all this money and she eventually manipulated him and convinced him to do it."

After stuffing a van with $17.3 million of stolen cash, Ghantt delivers the haul to Chambers' gang and flees to Mexico, hoping Campbell will eventually follow him, while the FBI hunts for the culprits.

The case -- which eventually led to Ghantt being jailed -- featured on TV shows like "America's Most Wanted" as a textbook example of how not to go about a major heist.

Hosts would gleefully point to each of the errors the would-be thieves made, most notably Ghantt leaving behind vital evidence after removing video tape from all but one security camera.

"The original plan was to steal the money and then lay low for nine months, and then the FBI has to move on to other things -- it becomes a cold case," says Hess.

"But they couldn't stop themselves."

Chambers and his wife Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) buy a mansion with their ill-gotten gains, and put up cash in small bills for a BMW Z3 sports car.

- 'He's a sweetheart' -

Michelle raised further suspicion by taking wads of notes to the bank and asking openly how much cash she would be able to deposit before arousing suspicion.

Eventually the couple dispatched overzealous hitman Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis) to Mexico to kill Ghantt -- leading to another farcical turn of events.

When Ghantt discovers the betrayal he returns to North Carolina on a mission to rescue his true love and expose Chambers as the heist's real mastermind.

"He's such a sweetheart of a person, also a really smart guy with a deep sense of humor about all the mistakes he did along the way," Hess says of Ghantt, a consultant on the film.

"He was very famous in jail because he stole all that money. He was very popular with the other inmates," the director adds.

It turns out that 1997 was something of an annus horribilis for the cash handling services industry.

In March Loomis Fargo was hit by its first big inside job of the year in Florida, when employee Philip Johnson made history by stealing $18.8 million.

That record lasted just a few months until a $18.9 million heist in September targeting Dunbar Armored in Los Angeles -- again involving an employee.

"With the tech now that we have -- GPS tracking -- you would not be able to pull off this heist, in a post 9/11 environment. It could only happen in the late 1990s," said Hess.

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