This review initially ran on June 19, 2015
Classic characters from perhaps the greatest literary work of American literature, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer have hit the big screen, in a re-imagining that takes their mischievously-intentioned, hero-of-the-story selves, keeps a driving plot about finding a mythic treasure, and leaves the rest behind – and to good-spirited, well-earned fun in the new film, Band of Robbers.
This timeless twosome, trouble-making in their never-ending pursuit of adventure and hero-seeking recognition and glory, are leveraged here as modern-day treasure seekers, that unite with their trusted merry men in hatching a plan of finding the first clue to the treasure, which first leads them to hold up a pawn shop in plastic grocery bag masks and the escort of “A Mexican.” The fun that is had here is in feeling the familiarity of these good ol’ boys that live so canonically in culture, and giving them the slick young people’s comedic treatment, working off a fine-tuned script and the work of a stellar cast to make for a worthwhile, enjoyable time.
It should be stated early, there’s not a whole lot that Robbers truly, truly, lifts from Mark Twain’s classic novel or characters other than using the characters’ likeliness and winning charms to drop them into this new culture mash-up. It’s really just the story of a version of a Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) and a Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee), where Huck is a recent prison release looking to make clean and Tom is a wily cop whose adventure-seeking ways leads to his character’s charming but still law-skirting flirtations, and through this all, they still remain the best of friends, along with a band of other self-affirmed misfit pirate pals.
With nods and instances of looking to weigh itself within the framework of a more classically told story of timeless fashion (to which the film succeeds in operating in this dually opposing mindset), the film is broken up into chapters, black cards with white hand-written scrawl of chapter titles and subtitles that bookend each section of the film to add the intentional, necessary rooting of seriousness before thrusting into the shenanigan-laden episodes that follow.
There’s a streak of folksy, whimsy appeal here, which, with the feeling of it being a home-grown indie effort of true charm, along with its premise of a tight-knit group of friends on a headstrong crime spree of a less-than-thought-out scheme, most closely resembles Wes Anderson’s winning feature debut, Bottle Rocket (1996). The difference is that it’s entirely obvious that everyone here is looking to make themselves into a goofball for a good time, and audiences should find themselves laughing at the number of laugh out loud jokes offered here. When Tom wrangles “the band” back together, after Huck’s first day out of the clink (for an unspecified, non-violent crime) and reveals a plan to steal the fabled treasure of Injun Joe, right off the bat, his monologuing is met with raised eyebrows and wry confusions, setting up the level of competency of all involved. The pact is legitimized by – you guessed it – a blood oath (though they compromise in not spilling any actual blood, in this secret meeting at Tommy Barnes’ poker table in his “man cave”).
The faces and talents enlisted here are truly where the comedy shines. It has the taste of 21 Jump Street comic-firing and timing of every-line-a-joke (and mostly bulls eye’s at that), uses some familiar faces and some not-so, in playing a winning hand. Kyle Gallner as Huck is a Jeremy Renner and Rick Grimes a la The Walking Dead, where Adam Nee is as much as stand-out in a role that he knows so well. The geek-beloved Matthew Gray Gubler as Joe Harper, along with Hannibal Burress as Ben Rogers add a deep bench to the effort, with Burress (and “Greg…Knife” nailing every one of his scenes). Melissa Benoist and Eric Christian Olsen also star as little-used Becky Thatcher, Tom’s new partner on the day of the planned heist (mention heist) and Sid Sawyer, beloved detective who plays it maybe a bit too straight.
Stephen Lang as Injun Joe (don’t worry, in case you forgot, “Injun Joe” was written by Twain as a half Native American, half white man) also adds a villain to fear after, with a gray wig and cowhide jacket with tassels. Though a discomforting laugh is had in light of today’s events with ex-NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal when Injun Joe says, “How is it racist to want to be more like another race?” Other than that, Robbers addresses racial tension ingrained in the original text by shifting to the plight of the Latino, as Huck finds a heartfelt cause in defending Jorge Jimenez (Daniel Edward Mora) after he gets the gardener involved in a heist that lands him on the brink of deportation.
Written and directed by brother filmmaking team Aaron and Adam Nee, Robbers went through many years of development (including an idea of it being a TV show) before finally having its world premiere at the LA Film Festival. One wonders what following that version of Huck, Tom, and company may have been like, and what many adventures they may have spun in and out of in sit-com fashion. But its final format of a ninety-five-minute feature film feels like the best use of its talent, sparing any over-indulgence in what could have flopped as a gimmick and succeeds as a send-up that breathes fresh life into an American classic.
Correction: This review was edited from a previous version that misstated the ethnicity of ‘Injun Joe’.
Band of Robbers had its World Premiere on Saturday, June 13th, at the LA Film Festival. Info here.