The ambition to dare update Mark Twain’s famous literary adventurers Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is mostly what powers “Band of Robbers”, a kooky crime caper from brothers Adam and Aaron Nee. Obviously, thrusting classic characters into a modern context is nothing new, but what makes this attempt interesting is how neatly their previously established personalities fit within a Coen Brothers-style heist movie full of colorful characters, odd twists of fate, and random acts of greed and heroism. The premise is clever and the Nee’s clearly have great affection for Twain’s work, but a cool idea isn’t enough to sustain it past the opening chapters.
On paper, the cast of fresh but recognizable faces should be a strength, but only a couple of performances stand out in a positive way. One is Kyle Gallner as the prison-hardened Huckleberry Finn, freshly released and ready to walk the straight and narrow path. But that’s impossible since his best pal Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) is just as much of a rapscallion as an adult as he was as a kid. Now a small-town cop, Sawyer is always looking for that next big score, but he needs Huck and the rest of the gang to pull it off. That score involves the location of a missing treasure they have been looking for since childhood, however they’ll need to outwit the dangerous Injun Joe (played by a creepy Stephen Lang) to get it.
Somewhat erratic and dopey though he may be, Tom is still able to convince others to do exactly what they know to be a bad idea. It’s like he’s still convincing people to paint the fence for him, only on a much larger scale. So he assembles his band of “Merry Men’, his “Band of Robbers”, consisting of Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler), Ben Rogers (comedian Hannibal Buress), and Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton) to join him and Huck in this latest scheme.
It’s in the actually heist that the film loses steam, as the offbeat tone, aided by a carnival score by Joel P. West, gives way to a more grim flavor. The Nee’s would have been better served indulging in the surreal, storybook qualities of this weird little world they envisioned for Tom and Huck. It’s a place where Becky Thatcher, played by the woefully under-utilized Melissa Benoist, is an awestruck rookie cop who keeps interfering in Tom’s plan. Despite the dust bowl locale it remains a place where Tom and Huck let their imagination flourish, concerning themselves with silly things like treasure maps and blood oaths. But unfortunately, the story turns dark, people start getting hurt, and traditional crime movie aspects take over. Soon, these characters no longer resemble the ones we were eager to hang out with, and they aren’t interesting enough to sustain our attention beyond their literary significance.
While Gallner shows a surprising charisma as the rugged and thoughtful Huck, Nee is less effective as Tom. He gets nearly all of the laugh lines but fails to really deliver them, and is completely unbelievable as the eventual romantic lead. As the only feminine presence in this band of clumsy dudes, it’s disappointing that Benoist gets only a few worthwhile scenes, each of which she brightens up tremendously. It’s also disappointing that comedy stalwarts like Gubler and Burress aren’t given more of a chance to show what they can do.
It’s interesting to think what Twain would say about a film like “Band of Robbers”. Chances are Twain would appreciate that his characters resonate enough for a movie like this to even exist, but by the time it was over he’d probably think their future adventures should be penned by him and him alone.