Band of Robbers (2015) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for violence and language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Adam Nee, Kyle Gallner, Melissa Benoist, Stephen Lang, Matthew Gray Gubler, Hannibal Buress, Daniel Edward Mora, Eric Christian Olsen, Beth Grant, Johnny Pemberton
Director: Aaron Nee, Adam nee
Screenplay: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee (inspired by the Mark Twain novels, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", and, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn")
Review published January 18, 2016
Brothers Aaron and Adam Nee (The Geniuses, The Last Romantic) write and direct this modern take on the classic Mark Twain stories, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" with Band of Robbers, a comedic adventure/crime flick. Adam Nee casts himself as Tom Sawyer, who has yearned to find a mythical pirate treasure since he was a young lad. Tom Sawyer's childhood best bud, Huckleberry 'Huck' Finn, is played by Kyle Gallner (American Sniper), who once was also involved in those early adventures before getting nabbed for a crime and sent to prison. Now that he's out, he's determined to live the straight life, but Tom, who is now a police officer in town, thinks they should get the old gang back together pick up on their quest to find that treasure that has always eluded them.
Trouble is that it involves them crossing the line to become criminals by robbing a local pawn shop. More trouble is that Tom's been assigned a goody-goody rookie named Becky Thatcher (Benoist, Danny Collins) to be constantly by his side, throwing a potential wrench in the works once it begins. But the worst trouble is that treasure is also sought by the murderous Injun Joe (Lang, A Good Marriage), and he's hot on their trail when things don't quite go according to plan.
Band of Robbers is a tale of two halves, with most of the good material going into the introduction of the characters and the concoction of the 'sure-fire' plan to get their riches and become local heroes. In some ways, it feels reminiscent of the vibe of Wes Anderson's modest first film, Bottle Rocket, in its tone and its execution, with a dash of Coen Brothers' bumbling criminals comedy sprinkled in. Fans of Twain's works will likely delight in the persistent references to the stories, though it's not a requirement to be intimately familiar to understand Band of Robbers, which has a fairly straightforward narrative, even if the tone is determinedly offbeat. The quirky score by Joel P. West (Grandma, Short Term 12), which seems to have more than a passing similarity to Ennio Morricone westerns at times, complements the smart-alecky nature of the comedic adventure to a tee.
Problems begin to emerge once the initial heist is underway, as the story's tone begins to shift from light and irreverent to a little more sinister, which is can be supported with a deft hand, but the featherweight nature of the first half can't support the more violent portions that erupt in the darker second. Band of Robbers eventually finds its footing once again once the main plot is resolved, but not quite enough to bounce back into interest for characters we've grown to dislike through the course of their reckless and irresponsible actions. I'm all for loveable rogues, but this band of robbers has empty morals, with Tom Sawyer in particular coming across as a cop with sociopathic tendencies. As Mark Twain once said, "The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell together, as quickly as possible." Erudite words that should have been posted on the set to be read every day of the film's production to avoid the apathy, if not outright disdain, that we eventually come to feel for these characters.
Aaron and Adam Nee are certainly a talented pair, and there are enough good stretches to Band of Robbers to suggest that they have what it takes to deliver funny, thoughtful, and insightful work. They come close with this film, but, as with most treasure hunts, they get a quite lost in the woods along the way before, eventually finding the right path. Not everyone can spin a yarn as good as Twain.
©2016 Vince Leo