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'Hard Word' is unstandard issue

The Australian crime drama remains anything but ordinary, despite the twists and turns of a familiar story line.

June 20, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Hard-boiled crime dramas and neo-noir knockoffs are thick on the ground these days, but not many of them are as tasty as "The Hard Word." A tidy thriller that marks the tight and confident directing debut of Scott Roberts, it does a surprisingly good job with undeniably familiar material.

Roberts, a veteran Australian screenwriter who produced the script as well as directed, has filled this story of crime and punishment among the lawless classes with numerous feints and ploys -- the inevitable double and triple crosses that have become standard issue for this kind of venture.

But unlike many previous projects, "The Hard Word" interests us in ways we don't expect. It has a mordant sense of humor and a gift for character and incident that has attracted two of Australia's best actors -- Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths -- as well as an excellent supporting cast.

A complicated variant on the "one last score" gambit, "Hard Word" opens with the three Twentyman brothers getting bailed out of prison on the same day. It's typical of the film's sense of style that we're told of the family connection via a "We Band of Brothers" tattoo on the back of the youngest sibling.

That would be Shane (a superb Joel Edgerton), an Adonis of a bodybuilder who has Elvis sideburns, the lost look of jazzman Chet Baker, and an anger management problem the size of the Sydney Opera House.

The brother in the middle is easygoing Mal (Damian Richardson), an enthusiastic butcher given to sticking pigs in his underwear and using an arcane form of backward slang popularized by his fellow New South Wales meat purveyors.

Which leaves us with Pearce's Dale, the natural leader despite a scruffy beard and hair that never gets washed. After "L.A. Confidential" and "Memento," not to mention "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," no one needs to be told how expert an actor Pearce is. But it is still exciting to see how skillfully he finds the threads in Dale's cocky personality, which make the man a person, not a type.

The trio is the best armed robbery team in town, as a nicely done piece of criminal business soon demonstrates. Setting up their jobs is Frank (Robert Taylor), their not-to-be-trusted attorney who has developed a thing for Dale's wife, Carol, while her husband has been inside.

Beautifully played by a blond-haired Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie," TV's "Six Feet Under") as a classic bad girl with the hot looks of Gloria Grahame and the sang-froid attitude of Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity," Carol is the film's calculating wild card. Yes, she's a liar, a dissembler, an acknowledged "greedy little tart," but does that really mean she can't be trusted?

That's not the only question "The Hard Word" asks and engagingly answers. The brothers think they've pulled their last job, but have they? Can they resist the machinations of Frank and the lure of "the biggest pile of cash in history"? And, in a film where several parties assume they are smarter than the room, who is really clever and who just thinks they are?

Though these numerous twists are an initial lure, "The Hard Word's" success comes through its concern for character. Writer-director Roberts, who says the brother theme was inspired by TV's "Bonanza," has created a genuine family feeling among the guys as well as given them all unexpected romantic moments. And he has the knack for creating convincing individuals whose quirks and tics seem intrinsic, not added on.

Better than his complications is Roberts' eye for eccentric events and settings, the way he can work an establishment called The Big Cow Museum into the plot. He also knows enough to keep his style low-key and do without the tiresome bravado that has sunk many similar efforts. When you really are the smartest guy in the room, its counter-productive to blow your own horn.


'The Hard Word'

MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, language, sexuality and drug use.

Times guidelines: Scenes of violence, sexuality.

Guy Pearce ... Dale

Rachel Griffiths ... Carol

Robert Taylor ... Frank

Joel Edgerton ... Shane

Damian Richardson ... Mal

Released by Lions Gate Film. Director Scott Roberts. Producer Al Clark. Executive producers Gareth Jones, Hilary Davis. Screenplay Scott Roberts. Cinematographer Brian Breheny. Editor Martin Connor. Costumes Terry Ryan. Music David Thrussell. Production design Paddy Reardon. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

In limited release.

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