The Twentymen stole Appellate Judge Michael Rankins's review! After them!
All it takes is a little persuasion.
When asked why he robbed banks, master thief Willie Sutton famously replied, "Because that's where the money is." History does not record Mr. Sutton's thoughts regarding what happened after one got the money out.
That, however, is the conundrum encountered by the Twentyman brothers.
Facts of the Case
Say "g'day" to the Twentymans—a trio of hardcore armed
robbers with a dozen bank jobs to their credit, currently serving time in a
friendly medium-security hoosegow for their latest misdeed.
Frank manages to spring the Twentyman boys out of the slammer for a day, just long enough to knock over an armored car and return to the lockup before anyone knows they were gone—the perfect alibi. But for Frank to secure their permanent release, the brothers will have to agree to pull off one final robbery (you knew that was coming, didn't you?)—the $20 million betting pool at Australia's biggest annual horse race, the Melbourne Cup. Duplicitous Frank, of course, has no real intention of sharing the bounty (or for that matter, the continued blessing of mortal life) with his expendable trio of hired heistmasters, so he saddles them with a wild-card ringer who doesn't exactly share the Twentymans' marching credo: "Nobody ever gets hurt."
Writer/director Scott Roberts manages to pull off the near-impossible with The Hard Word: he takes a familiar formula, peoples it with recognizable character types, plays the story absolutely straight with few—if any—surprises, and makes it all seem fresh and engaging instead of predictable and trite. Even though it's possible to outline almost everything that happens in the film well in advance—because we've all seen a few dozen heist movies cut from the same cinematic die—Roberts and his brilliant cast of Aussie character actors have crafted this picture so beautifully that we scarcely care. Genre films usually excel when they spring free of the expected conventions; The Hard Word achieves the more difficult goal of excelling entirely within the conventions. It is entertaining without being innovative, and I mean that as a compliment…for the most part.
Roberts succeeds as well as he does by reaching back to those classic 1960s and '70s English crime dramas and infusing his film with a healthy dose of their retro urban cool. If movies like the original versions of Get Carter and The Italian Job are your cup of Earl Grey, you'll find that The Hard Word feels as comforting and familiar as a hearty bowl of hot porridge. While kicking his caper old-school, Roberts pumps in a dose of ultramodern quick-cut editing and a thematically rich score by composer David Thrussell. These elements combine to make everything old seem almost new again.
The skillfully chosen cast helps too. Guy Pearce, who has garnered praise with one superb performance after another, dating back to L.A. Confidential (we'll forgive him the remake of The Time Machine on the grounds that everyone's entitled to one mistake), turns in another sparkler here. His Dale Twentyman is intelligent and sympathetic, but yet hardened to the degree that we sense he would ever have a future as anything other than a supremely talented snatch-and-grab artist. Pearce communicates a great deal of his character's unseen backstory through the nuances of his gaunt face—the world-weariness of his eyes, the resigned set of his mouth. This is particularly true in a pivotal scene where Rachel Griffiths as Dale's wife Carol visits him in prison. Pearce's acting in this scene is accomplished mostly with his face and voice, and his jealousy and rage are palpable.
Indeed, each of the key male roles—the three brothers, and their sleazebag lawyer—has his best moments when isolated with a female character. Mal falls into jovial puppy love with a bashful meteorologist (Kate Atkinson) whose car the Twentymans commandeer during their flight to freedom. Shane gets in touch with his inner Oedipus while in therapy with a prison counselor (played with haunted empathy by Rhondda Findleton), who in turn exposes to him her inner Jocasta, among other things. Frank has a couple of riotous scenes opposite Carol, who has the man twisted so tightly around her little finger he's practically a tourniquet. It's Griffiths as Carol who's the weakest link here, though I don't believe it's entirely her fault—the makeup department, for reasons unclear to me, decided to plaster on the pancake and peroxide to the point that Griffiths looks like a drag queen, no offense to this fine actress intended. While her performance is deft and provocative, her mannish appearance is so off-putting that it's tough to imagine two men being so worked up over her they'd risk everything to have her.
The one truly memorable scene with the three brothers arrives near the beginning of the film, when the Twentymans order breakfast at an outdoor café. Revealing character through the purchase and consumption of food is a time-honored trope, but the sequence here builds on finely scripted dialogue shared among the three principals, and dead solid perfect delivery of these lines by the actors. Add a delightful series of honest and accurate reaction shots from the café's beleaguered young waitress (Louise Crawford)—sans the Down Under accent, you've seen this poor woman at work in every coffee shop and diner you've ever visited—and this scene is a classic. I'll never look at a French fry the same way again.
Scott Roberts's screenplay crackles with crisp dialogue that's never so witty that it sounds forced, or like a hack writer showing off. His plotting is the one area where things fall down—as previously noted, there's not much to this story we haven't seen numerous times before (the racetrack rip-off gambit, for example, was employed more effectively in The Killing, and less effectively in Beverly Hills Cop 2). The ending, though logical and minimally satisfying, also feels anticlimactic—I really wanted to see the final confrontation between double-crossers and double-crossees erupt into a much more dramatic head, and to get some resolution in the closing shot that didn't remind me of an old episode of The Mod Squad. But we'll take what we get.
Lions Gate offers crime film aficionados a worthy DVD presentation of The Hard Word. The anamorphic transfer is first rank—clear, clean, film-like, and well defined without overuse of edge enhancement (it's there, but mostly unobtrusive), featuring accurate color and contrast. There's one wonky moment that may be only a flaw in my individual review disc, but in the event it isn't, I'll report it—about two-thirds of the way through the movie, a flickering effect (something like a strobe light) lasting about two seconds occurs during a chapter transition. It's a pronounced enough defect that it completely shocks the viewer out of the story for a brief moment. If this glitch shows up in your copy, well, you've been warned.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track on this disc approaches reference quality. David Thrussell's intense score dominates the film (an isolated score audio option is included, and is worth a listen), and the audio producers have pulled out the stops to ensure that the music receives the rich, open environment it deserves. The only qualm to be found is that the dialogue is occasionally mixed a mite too deeply in the soundfield, which complicates matters for American ears already straining to decipher the cast's thick Australian accents. (That's why the DVD Fairy gave us subtitles.) Occasional thumb-fiddling with the remote will keep the sonic elements in proper perspective, but that's work the viewer shouldn't have to invest.
While none of the individual supplements will knock anyone's socks off, together they create nice background for the film. Scott Roberts contributes an audio commentary—his delivery is rather dry, and most of his remarks centered on things you can see onscreen, but he's suitably enthusiastic (in a low-key sort of way) and spreads the praise around. He's also infinitely more informative than the five-minute interview-clip exercise that attempts to pass itself off as a behind-the-scenes documentary. Roberts also kicks in a self-penned text article called "Meatierology: A Glossary of Butcher's Speak," in which he provides some interesting history about the unusual reverse slang we hear the Twentyman boys use throughout the movie.
A feature entitled From Storyboards to Screen replays the key getaway sequence from the film, with the original storyboards inserted in picture-in-picture format. Another feature described as a "music video" really is just a non-verbal trailer—quick cuts from the movie, surrounded by '60s-esque psychedelic animation—whiz past while the opening theme music plays. A theatrical trailer and a reasonably thorough set of 12 text biographies about pertinent cast and crew personnel tie the final ribbons on the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the family name, there are only three Twentyman brothers in this film. Perhaps a sequel will showcase the other seventeen.
On the whole, the strengths of The Hard Word solidly outweigh its shortcomings. Its resonance with the great crime capers of British cinema's bygone glory days (with new and improved Australian flavor) plus noteworthy chemistry among its cast make it an enjoyable entertainment for fans of the heist genre. The film never takes itself so seriously that it stops being fun, and it refrains from being so ludicrous that it strains the audience's willing suspension of disbelief (did you catch that, Mr. Tarantino?). Steal on down to your local video outlet and pick up a copy…but please, pay on your way out the door.
Based upon the visual evidence, the Twentyman brothers are guilty of numerous felonies. However, their performances in this film are exemplary, so the Judge will sentence them to light duty, mucking out the prison slaughterhouse and destroying the last of that foul blood sausage. The rest of the cast and crew are free to go. And as the gavel descends, the Judge utters the only truly hard word in this courtroom: "Adjourned."
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer/Director Scott Roberts
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