The directors of Band of Robbers, brothers Aaron and Adam Nee, have set out to modernize the stories of Mark Twain but end up with a cutesy caper that isn’t as memorable as you might hope.
Here Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) and Huckleberry Finn (Kyle Gallner) are both twentysomething men, lifelong friends with au courant facial hair. Sawyer is a cop, while Finn is just out of jail. Seeing Twain’s characters in a contemporary setting is novel at first but ultimately becomes shtick, especially when they hang out in a “man cave” or describe something as “legit as a witch’s titty” — Twain’s wit gives way to the modern bro.
The film touches on some race-related issues, as expected given the source material, but the Nee brothers mostly use them as quirky window dressing. Injun Joe (Stephen Lang) is now a white man who appropriates Native American culture (“Isn’t that racist?” the other characters ask) — a gesture that seems designed for pat jokes tidily tied to buzzwords from today’s discussion of race. Still, Band of Robbers has some charms: Hannibal Buress, as Ben Rogers, uses his usual mellow deadpan delivery effectively, particularly in a scene in which he attempts to come up with a badass criminal persona as he and his friends rob a pawnshop. While Sawyer’s relationship with Becky Thatcher — here a rookie cop assigned as his partner — can be convoluted (particularly during a violent episode built on misunderstandings), Melissa Benoist brings a fresh-scrubbed sweetness that is a welcome counterpoint to Nee’s smugness.
Band of Robbers walks a thin line between loving tribute and self-parody. At one point, Sawyer observes that “a lot of people just want to watch teens get voted off shows on television.” He may be right, but the novelty of hearing that come from Twain’s bad boy doesn’t redeem what is, at best, just another tired complaint about these kids today.
Band of Robbers
Written and directed by Aaron Nee and Adam Nee
Opens January 15, AMC Empire 25