Aaron Nee, Adam Nee, based on a book, Becky Thatcher, Beth Grant, childhood friends, cinema, co-directors, co-editors, co-writers, Cooper Huckabee, Creed Bratton, Daniel Edward Mora, dark comedies, Eric Christian Olsen, film reviews, films, Hannibal Buress, heist films, Huck Finn, Injun Joe, Johnny Pemberton, Kyle Gallner, Lee Garlington, literary figures, Mark Twain, Matthew Gray Gubler, Melissa Benoist, Movies, Noah Rosenthal, Stephen Lang, Tom Sawyer, writer-director-actor-editor
If you’ve ever gotten really wrapped up in a good book or story, you’ve probably wondered what happened to the surviving characters after the last page has been turned. Do they continue to live on, experiencing life and having adventures that you’ll never be privy to? Are the unwritten/unseen adventures as good as what made it to the page? Could they possibly be better? Or is this the proverbial case of the unseen tree in the woods: if we’re not reading, do they cease to exist?
Working from this basic question, filmmaking siblings Aaron and Adam Nee offer up Band of Robbers (2016), a droll, indie-crime caper that wonders, aloud, what would happen if Mark Twain’s classic rapscallions Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were a couple of young roustabouts in our modern era. Lest they get lonely, the Nees have also brought along old friends like Becky Thatcher, Muff Potter, Aunt Polly, Sid Sawyer and, of course, that old ne’er-do-well, Injun Joe. When all’s said and done, however, do these timeless characters survive their modern makeovers or is this one of those “better in theory” type of deals?
Tom Sawyer (co-writer/director/editor Adam Nee) and Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) are childhood best friends who are pretty much attached at the hip until life sends them down two very separate paths. Tom ends up joining the police force, where he navigates around both the disapproving eye of his stern aunt, Lt. Polly (Lee Garlington), and the over-sized shadow of his over-achieving half-brother, Det. Sid Sawyer (Eric Christian Olsen), all while keeping the most ridiculously sunny disposition this side of Mary Poppins. For his part, Huck has chosen a life of crime and spent a stretch of time in prison. As he nears his release date, Huck has no family, no friends, no real relationships and a huge question mark over his future.
The old friends reconnect when Tom picks Huck up from prison and whisks him straight away to a thoroughly pathetic “welcome home” party that doubles as a meeting for Tom’s latest brilliant idea. To whit: he wants Huck to join his “Band of Robbers,” which includes perpetually bleary Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), eager-to-please Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler) and squeaky-clean Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton), who just happens to be married to Tom’s old girlfriend, Amy (Maria Blasucci).
Tom’s plan is a complex, convoluted and fairly nonsensical one that involves ripping off a pawn shop in order to steal a hidden fortune in gold that has, according to Tom’s source, “Muff” Potter (Cooper Huckabee), been left there by none other than the nefarious killer, Injun Joe (Stephen Lang). The plan is a harebrained one, sure, but it still ends up going to shit in some pretty spectacular ways, mostly centered around Tom suddenly acquiring a wet-behind-the-ears, rookie partner, Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist). When the dust clears, Tom, Huck and their bumbling “band” must avoid not only the long arm of the local podunk police force but also the murderous attention of Injun Joe and his partners. Throw in some love lost and found, old wounds healed, old friendships reconciled and destinies fulfilled and you might have something that would make ol’ Samuel Clemens crack a grin.
If it were possible for films to skate by on nothing but a fresh concept and good intentions, Band of Robbers would be a massive success from start to finish. Indeed, the vast majority of good will that the Nees amass here is usually centered around the clever ways in which they manage to insert Twain’s various creations into the fabric of what turns out to be a fairly hum-drum caper film. Devotees of the original source material will be able to play a pretty fun little game of “Spot the Reference/Character,” which adds a little replay value to the proceedings, along with creating a fairly immersive world for Tom, Huck and their cohorts to play in.
The performances are generally enthusiastic, which gives the film a nicely propulsive quality, although some actors/characters fare better than others. At the top of this particular pyramid sits Kyle Gallner’s nicely understated take on Huck Finn and Stephen Lang’s all-in performance as one of the literary world’s greatest villains. Completely unrecognizable (I actually had no idea it was him until the end credits), Lang seems to be having more fun than the entire case combined and it’s pretty easy to give yourself over to the film whenever he holds the reins (which is, admittedly, not often enough). For his part, Gallner gives us a fairly standard “troubled dude with good intentions” but the performance is nuanced and Gallner is charismatic enough to make it work.
We also get sturdy performances from Gubler (quickly becoming a modern-day, genre film go-to-guy), Garlington, Olsen and Huckabee, all of whom run the gamut from suitably grounded to outrageously over-the-top. At the very least, however, each one brings enough individuality to the portrayals to make the characters seem (at least superficially) like fairly well-rounded creations. We’re not talking the typical Andersonian “cast of dozens,” mind you, but the aforementioned actors do a fine job of keeping us in Band of Robbers peculiar little world.
Less successful, unfortunately, are Hannibal Buress’ odd, spacey performance as Ben (was he actually stoned during the shoot, on cough medicine or a combination of both?), Adam Nee’s thoroughly grating, obnoxious take on Tom Sawyer and poor Melissa Benoist’s completely wasted take on Becky Thatcher. Buress’ performance isn’t as much of an issue due to his relative lack of screen-time but Nee is in roughly 90% of the film and he’s all but impossible to ignore. When working in tandem with Gallner and the others, Nee’s spastic performance feels, at the very least, tethered to something. Whenever he’s allowed to dominate the proceedings, however, he Hoovers up scenery like some sort of human-shaped black hole, giving everything a hectic, rushed and unnecessarily madcap feel that seems at odds with the rest of the film’s tone.
Perhaps no one gets the shorter end of the stick than Benoist, however, whose Becky Thatcher is such a non-entity that she might as well wear a big sign that says “Plot Device” around her neck. Where the original Becky was a more than suitable firebrand foil for Tom Sawyer, this version is just a moon-eyed, bumbling green-horn, a character who exists only to complicate the already complicated caper and serve as a standard-issue love interest. Hell, Becky’s “big” moment comes when she reveals that she asked to be Tom’s partner because she “sensed that he was headed for big things.” It would probably be easier to forgive the waste of a character if Benoist (so good in Whiplash (2014)) didn’t throw her all into the thankless character, giving her a giddy, effervescent quality that absolutely deserved a better outlet. Maybe next time, Melissa.
More than anything, however, Band of Robbers suffers from being simultaneously too familiar (despite that great central concept) and too disjointed and manic. When the film works, it works just fine. When it doesn’t, however, it actually becomes something of a mess. Take the pawn shop heist, for example, which should be one of the film’s primo setpieces. Instead, the scene devolves into a seriously unfunny mix of silly situational comedy, exaggerated performances and sub-Ritchian, overlapping dialogue. It was tiresome practically from the point it began, grinding the entire film to a halt at just the exact point when it should have been reaching take-off speed.
This sense of missed opportunities is repeated ad infinitum, right down to the ridiculously lackadaisical way in which the film dispatches its one legitimate threat (suffice to say that low stakes are but another constant issue here): it’s the notion that cutting off loose ends is much easier and less time consuming than tying them into neat bows. It’s a bit of a shame, too, since the film generally looks and sounds top-notch: at times, cinematographer Noah Rosenthal’s camera-work even approximates the arty loveliness of the Nees’ obvious influence, Wes Anderson, although it’s never more than a surface touch, at best.
Ultimately, despite its good intentions and handful of genuinely smart stylistic quirks, Band of Robbers never really makes good on the inherent interest of its premise. Rather than being something fairly original and new, this is just another zig-zagging crime caper about odd-couple friends who must set aside their differences in order to pull off one last, big haul. If that sounds familiar…well, it certainly is. There are plenty of films worse than Band of Robbers and an equal amount that are much, much better: problem is, no one ever stood out by standing in the middle of a crowd. I think ol’ Tom Sawyer would agree with that, too.