Let’s walk carefully through the plot description and other surface elements of Aaron and Adam Nee’s Band of Robbers, because based on all subsequent assumptions, this movie should be terrible. The “high concept” is this: a modern-day adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, imagining the two childhood friends as contemporary adults, one an ex-con trying to go straight, the other a bumbling cop trying to go crooked. Again, I know – it sounds awful, like yet another delayed-sequel/origin-story/cinematic-universe Product from an art form bent on telling “new” stories based on familiar elements. So maybe it’s due to mere expectation that Band of Robbers is so wonderful – sharp, funny, big-hearted, and absolutely true to the spirit of the author in question. Or maybe it’s just more impressive when someone makes a good movie out of a bad idea.
After a brief bit of childhood backstory, we meet up with Huck (Kyle Gallner, from Veronica Mars) shortly after his release from prison. Tom (co-writer/co-director Adam Nee) is a uniformed cop, self-confident, self-impressed, and clearly incompetent; he proposes putting getting the old gang together to rob a pawn shop, which he believes holds the treasure they’ve been pursuing since childhood. It goes awry, of course, and the pair gets in deeper and deeper with not only Tom’s bosses but a gang of real criminals – and the stakes are decidedly higher than when they are the kids.
The elements of “The Tom Sawyer Gang” – their meetings in a pal’s “mancave,” their oath (“I could only get the Resume Wizard to open,” Tom explains, holding up the page, “so I typed it up that way, but I think it’s pretty good”), the goofy plan, and the precision with which it comes apart – are unquestionably reminiscent of Bottle Rocket, and if anything, the film plays like a cross of Twain’s sensibility and Wes Anderson’s. What’s surprising is how closely they mesh, as the picture segues from full-on comedy to human drama to adventure without jarring the viewer.
Which is not to imply that the Nees don’t have their own comic sensibility. A conversation among the gang about “Injun Joe,” racism, and cultural appropriation results in one of the funniest scenes in many a movie, while the clutch of that argument (“I guess he identifies with the culture and the aesthetic”) reappears at a moment as funny as it is unexpected. Gallner mostly plays the straight man, which is the right call when sharing the screen with a comic performer as dynamic as Nee; he gives his readings a corkscrew rhythm, and frequently, the off-hand way he fumble-mumbles his punch lines are as funny as the gags themselves. And it gives me great pleasure to report that while Hannibal Buress’ role is decidedly secondary, it does include a scene of him describing exactly how a tattoo of a mermaid riding a snake would work. (“Sidesaddle,” he purrs.)
But they also take their story seriously – “Injun Joe” is played by Stephen Lang as an undeniably menacing figure, and when he comes to collect, the climactic chases and shootouts (agreed, shouldn’t work, sounds awful) not only fit, but play in and of themselves. More importantly, Gallner and Nee get at the emotional reality of the Huck/Tom relationship with the honesty it deserves. The movie is laughing at Tom a lot of the time, but in those moments, or in his warm scenes with police partner and romantic possibility Becky Thatcher (the wonderful Melissa Benosit of Supergirl), they’re going for something bigger, more open, more tender – and surprisingly enough, nailing it.
The interpolations of the two Twain source novels are all pretty clever, from supporting characters to parallel situations to a visual shout-out to Sawyer’s most iconic scene. Those translations are something akin to the ingenious updates of a film like Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, while leaving this particular story to stand as its own, unique beast. Adapting Twain, or even talking about him, has become a pretty sticky bit of business in recent years, for reasons we’re all well aware of; you either end up whitewashing or biting off more than you can chew. It’s no mistake that the Nees open their film with Twain’s opening instructions from Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” It’s a fine way to start a story, first and foremost. But in Band of Robbers, Twain’s words provide a freewheeling guiding principle – and in return, the film provides a workable road map for adapting this singular artist.
Band of Robbers is out Friday in limited release and on demand.