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Band of Robbers
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by Jay Seaver

"Classic troublemakers in a new environment."
4 stars

Truth be told, I'm kind of surprised we haven't seen more things like "Band of Robbers" since various Sherlock Holmes projects showed that audiences would go for beloved nineteenth-century characters reinvented for the modern age, if only because producers would find public domain properties very affordable. Sure, you run the risk of being accused of desecrating something beloved, but this take on some of Mark Twain's most popular characters turned out a lot better than one might have expected.

It presents Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) and Huckleberry Finn (Kyle Gallner) as contemporary adults in their twenties. Huck is a small-time crook just released from prison; Tom a beat cop whose head is nevertheless full of schemes that he tries to sell Huck and his friends Joe Harper (Matthew Gary Gubler), Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), and Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton). The latest involves the long-sought Murrell's Treasure, which has supposedly been found by Injun Joe (Stephen Lang) and stashed in a local pawn shop. To be frank, though, Tom's plan is terrible, and that is before Lieutenant Polly (Lee Garlington) sticks Tom with new partner Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist) or Jorge Jiminez (Daniel Edward Mora), the gardener at the halfway house where Huck is staying, gets dragged in.

In addition to playing Tom, Adam Nee wrote, directed, and edited the film along with his brother Aaron, and they're probably wise to keep closer to the structure and tone of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than the potentially heavier material in Huckleberry Finn, although some of that sneaks through in ways one might not expect. It makes for a fun, lightweight caper movie, although the fact that the plans and goals are straight out of children's adventures of an earlier era gives the film a paradoxical maturity. Tom's a little more arrested, Huck's a little more mature, and when it turns out that there is something to Tom's plans, the world seems a little more exciting for it and dangerous because of how monsters like Injun Joe don't necessarily play nice.

That the film can get away with having a character named "Injun Joe" in the twenty-first century means it has to be pretty clever at some point, and to the Nees' credit, they navigate that issue and some other bits of racial insensitivity with aplomb, and do so without ever getting far sidetracked from the crime comedy they're making. It turns out that the antics of a kid impressed with his own relative cleverness and his gullible friends translate well to a bunch of not-so-brought schemers, with the film doling out a steady stream of dumb-guy banter that hits more often than not. The Nees save most of the "hey, this was in the books!" stuff for the end, and while the story is sometimes kind of rocky, there are few extended periods where things don't work.

The energetic pair at the center of the film are a major part of this. Kyle Gallner had the bigger challenge, perhaps, because his adult Huck is actually grown up some compared to the other characters, so there's not so much of the illiterate wild child to counter the uncertain maturity. Still, Gallner takes the orphan looking for a connection that he's given and finds the quiet, unassuming intelligence and wandering spirit, also supplying narration that doesn't elevate Huck above his friends despite its knowing nature. Adam Nee, meanwhile, gets to have a blast as Tom, playing up the character's eyes being focused much more on what he wants to be rather than how one gets there but having the confidence to make it seem reasonable despite the fact that he's tripping over his own tongue half the time. It's almost lazy to describe him as Tom Sawyer, but Nee does get at what made him such a memorable character - he's a con artist and ne'er-do-well fueled by a child's innocence, exciting to be around even though whatever he's up to will end in trouble.

The filmmakers do a nice job of reducing the movie to Tom and Huck during a fair bit of the action, but surrounding them with a good supporting cast helps a lot. Hannibal Buress and especially Matthew Gary Gubler are reliable foils as the other members of Tom's "gang", fun counterparts to the more sensible Huck. It's not hard at all to imagine Melissa Benoist landing Supergirl off this part, though "capable but easily flustered" is kind of her wheelhouse, and even small parts (like Eric Christian Olsen as Sid Sawyer) tend to be memorable in their moments. On the other side of the story, Stephen Lang does a fine job of presenting the boogeyman that this group believed in as kids as both more and less threatening when encountered by them as adults.

It's an entertaining enough group to paper over the bits of the film that aren't quite silly in the right way, especially when the epilogue touches all the Tom/Huck bases that the audience would want in clever fashion, ending well enough to send the audience out on a good note. That's a big part of how "Band of Robbers" gets good results from a silly premise, good enough to still be worth thinking about fondly afterward.

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originally posted: 01/17/16 17:08:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 15-Mar-2016



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