Are “character” and “complications” such hard words? It seems they must be for this Aussie heist flick’s writer and first-time feature director Scott Roberts.
It’s been more than a decade since Roberts scripted his last film, a mountaineering actioner titled K2 that might rate a footnote in modern film history for beating more popular pictures like Cliffhanger (1993) and Vertical Limit (2000) to the rarefied peaks of the world - if not box office sales. If this film is any indication, he may have spent the years in between honing his directing chops on light beer commercials: To paraphrase an old, low-calorie suds plug, The Hard Word looks great, but it’s less fulfilling.
Roberts opens this picture by framing and cutting a basketball game in the courtyard of Sydney, Australia’s Long Bay Correctional Facility as if it were a battle scene from Gladiator. Perhaps he’s attempting to create a criminal atmosphere (or at least an audiovisual calling card for directing a future athletic footwear commercial). Whatever his purpose, the scene has little to do with his main trio of criminals inside the walls: Dale (Guy Pearce), Shane (Joel Edgerton) and Malcolm (Damien Richardson).
Like a lesser cinematic god, Roberts flatly draws his characters around simple premises. Malcolm’s identity centers on his trade as a butcher and a chef (when he meets a girl while the gang is on the lam, he chats her up with the line, “You smell better than Christmas dinner!”). Shane ends up being the most complex, with his multiple fixations on pumping iron, Elvis and breasts. Then there’s Dale, the prison librarian, who borrows books with titles like Relationship Rescue. His brass-plated ring is for winning back his blonde tart of a wife, Carol (Rachel Griffiths), who seems as polished and cheap as costume jewelry.
It seems Roberts saved complexity for his story line. The gang’s villainous lawyer, Frank (Robert Taylor) is pulling the strings on this operation from the outside while he pulls Carol into his bed. He somehow arranges both prison releases so the boys can accomplish his heists and their re-incarceration.
It’s a novel plot fashioned from film noir’s repository of obsessed anti-heroes, femme fatales and vicious villains strung along through ambitious heists, double crosses and love triangles. But whatever darkness the Australian sun doesn’t visually beat out of this picture is mostly lost as Roberts lets his heroes off the hook prematurely and too easily.
Despite Pearce’s wolfish and Griffith’s smoldering glares, The Hard Word is often too simple and too soft.
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James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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