literature endures the changing taste trends because of its
timeless ideas and characters that are strongly grounded on human nature’s eternal flaws. These traits make them very desirable properties to put onto the
screen. Among these there exists an even more exclusive group of works that
have not only been adapted into films, but which have been removed from their
original context to be placed and infused with the singular concerns of an
entirely different time period
is a favorite for this type of treatment: Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and
scores of films that attempt to reimagine “Hamlet,” are proof of this fascination. Hits and misses
that pursue a symbiotic blend between the themes in the original material and
their modern settings.
Finding this cohesive marriage of ideas to a great degree,
“Band of Robbers,” by co-directors and siblings Aaron and Adam Nee,
is a new retelling of Mark Twain’s most iconic characters that brings them into 21st century California with comedic spunk. His famous scoundrels, Tom
Sawyer (Adam Nee) and Huckleberry Finn (Kyle Gallner), are still great friends looking for an ancient
treasure in this modern iteration, but the obstacles to get it are very much of
Segmented into cleverly titled chapters to
further its literary quality, the film opens as young Huck and Tom, whose home
life is less than ideal, come across Injun Joe (Stephen Lang), a rough-looking villain who is
willing to kill in order to get the riches he’s been chasing down for years.
Caught up in middle of the crime, Huck goes to prison for most of his teenage
years, while Tom gets to walk away. But in spite of the abrupt separation no
loyalty is lost between them – they are, indeed, each other’s only family.
Cut to about a decade later, Tom has become a
police officer and Huck has just been released. Reunited, the ex-con wants to
go straight, while the boy in blue is still obsessed with finding Murrel’s
legendary treasure – even if their original search is what landed Huck behind
bars. Tom has obtained new intel on its whereabouts and he is putting together a gang
of misfits to finally put his hands on it.
Besides our two main bandits, a
shabby Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler) and the easygoing Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress) join their ranks in hopes of a quick buck Robin-Hood-style. With an
elaborate plan, the band will is ready to rob a pawnshop – where the treasure is
supposed to be hidden – but clearly these inept boy-scouts-turned-thieves will
find it much more challenging in practice.
Adam Nee’s Tom is a charmer – just like in Twain’s writing – who
longs to become a hero and leave a legacy behind. There is contrived idealism
in his persuasive speeches that aim to inspire others to follow his lead even
when he is not certain of the outcome himself. Prompted by underlying
insecurities derived from living under his detective brother’s shadow, Tom
tries to overcompensate with flaky confidence and reckless acts often resulting
in humorous mishaps. Nee gets the
tone right both when dealing with Sawyer’s heroic exploits and his constant
Though the film is narrated by Gallner’s Huck, his is a much smaller
role, almost like and observer who initially trusts Tom blindly. But as
Sawyer’s relentless quest for glory becomes more detached with their reality,
Huck begins to notice the cracks in his best pal’s personality. While not consciously
aware of it or too proud to admit, they have become the villains of their legend
by hurting innocent bystanders like rookie officer Becky Thatcher ( played by Melissa Benoist and who is Tom’s partner
in this interpretation) or Jorge (Daniel Edward Mora), a hardworking Mexican man who risks
deportation after being tricked into helping the robbers.
Huck carries himself with a hint of melancholy, which is
Gallner’s best tool to transfer the lonesome vagabond to a new era and render him
relevant for current audiences, many of which will have their first encounter
with Twain’s world through this film. Not a bad introduction at all.
Since “Band of Robbers” approaches the material with intelligent
humor and takes broad liberties with it, there is not an actual need to familiar
with these characters to enjoy it. Still, the curious intersection it inhabits
– somewhere between millennial bromance and elegant saga – makes the film
accessible, yet embellished with sophisticated touches.
The mystery at the center of the plot is clearly not the
focus as it unfolds with excessively circumstantial twists that hardly
allow for any real tension. However, the film’s strength is the mythical atmosphere that’s able to generate
while not being overly solemn. Particularly in the sequences when the misguided
heroes confront or hide from Injun Joe, the film sports Scooby-Doo-like
undertones, which add a playful mood to the narrative.
The Nee Brother’s “Band of Robbers” has the production
value of major studio project and the spirit of an unconventional indie showing
off compelling cinematic skills. It’s like a thinking man’s “Superbad” with an
ethereal quality that’s sort of murky, but delivers in laugh-out-loud moments
and thoughtful realizations about young manhood.
In a scene during the first half of the film Tom
and Huck wearing modern-day clothing sit in what looks like a candlelit room to discuss their future, the production design is straight from the 1800s but
their worries are ageless. At that moment neither them nor us know the time and
place they are supposed to be in, but we are completely aware that their emotional distress and uncertainty transcend. Hoping to become something greater never goes out of style.
World rights are being handled by Agency for the Performing Arts, U.S. rights are still available.