Band of Robbers

Posted by Joel Copling on January 26, 2015

It's almost incidental that the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry "Huck" Finn, made famous by Mark Twain's classic and, in recent years, controversial novels about their adventures, are at the center of "Band of Robbers." The screenplay by sibling directors Aaron and Adam Nee is clever, though, in allowing the baggage of both boys (here, young men) to color their adult lives, and the two central performances are instantly sympathetic toward the flawed and sometimes desperate characters they are playing. This Tom (Adam Nee) is a cop striving for detective status who is a little to confident in himself, and this Huck (Kyle Gallner) has led a criminal life for the past 15 years and is determined to fix that.

The plot in which they find themselves begins as simplicity personified. Directly after Huck leaves prison, Tom, who desperately wants to prove himself as a crook by fulfilling his and Huck's search for Murrel's treasure, employs Huck, Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress) to help him. First, they must rob a pawn shop where they believe the treasure might be stowed away, then it's off to search for more clues as the plan caves in around them. The first bump in the road is the sudden insertion of Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist) into Tom's police work as his new partner before the plan can come to fruition, and the re-entrance of Injun Joe (Stephen Lang), Tom and Huck's nemesis, who wants the treasure for himself, of course.

There's a real sense of ingenuity to the narrative here, simple as it is. The preparation for the initial heist goes smoothly enough for what is largely guesswork, and then the execution of it, in the film's funniest scene, goes down the tubes as one characters loses his nerve, another is too hungover even to remember major concepts of the plan, a third and fourth cannot sell the accents necessary to blame it on another nationality, and a fifth is the unexpected kink in the works. It's a small delight of comic timing, performances that take full advantage of their characters' bumbling mistakes, and editing that still somehow manages to build tension as well as it sells the entire gag (and, no, describing it in such roundabout terms betrays none of its delights).

Another priceless factor is Lang, whose turn as Injun Joe is as quirky as it is menacing. The story he tells, of the origin of the two scars that can be found upon his face, is frightening, but the cadence and inflection of speech are far from it. It's a solid portrayal of a total wacko, rather than merely of a stock villain. He might be a plot device, something against which to work for our heroes, but the writing of the character is unique, both in the way he operates (with a laser focus on a single goal) and in his comeuppance (an act of random chance that stands as the screenwriters' clearest tribute to another pair of siblings in the film world--Ethan and Joel Coen).

The performances also hold a similar focus, each of them largely reactive to the circumstances as they play out. Nee is amusing in Tom's constant, nervous energy around Becky (herself portrayed by Benoist with a winning smile and a likability factor that's through the roof), but Gallner is particularly good at capturing Huck's desire to escape his past. The finale, which manages a surprisingly emotional kick, presents the characters with a fork in the road, and it's no surprise when two of them choose different paths down which to travel. The ultimate point, then, of "Band of Robbers," which is an engaging update of classic literature, is that such choices cannot be made without also facing up to them.

Film Information

Kyle Gallner (Huck Finn), Adam Nee (Tom Sawyer), Matthew Gray Gubler (Joe Harper), Hannibal Buress (Ben Rogers), Melissa Benoist (Becky Thatcher), Daniel Edward Mora (Jorge Jiminez), Stephen Lang (Injun Joe), Eric Christian Olsen (Sid Sawyer), Johnny Pemberton (Tommy Barnes), Beth Grant (Widow Douglas), Cooper Huckabee (Muff Potter), Lee Garlington (Lt. Polly), Creed Bratton (Dobbins).

Directed and written by Aaron Nee and Adam Nee, based on the novels "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain.

No MPAA rating.

95 minutes.

Released in select cities on January 15, 2016.