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Movie review: 'The Hard Word'

2 star (out of 4)

Heist films generally must be designed with mathematical precision so viewers can follow the complicated scheming even while they're thrown off by twists and double-crosses. As a result, many of these movies turn out heady and cold.

No one would accuse "The Hard Word" of being precise but - here's the twist - it's pretty chilly anyway. Written and directed by Scott Roberts, who previously wrote the 1991 mountain-climbing adventure "K2," this Australian production pairs two always-watchable actors, Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths, yet never compels us to feel a thing.

A scuffy, angular Pearce plays Dale, the oldest and smartest of three thieving brothers who, when the movie begins, are awaiting their release from prison. A blond-dyed Griffiths is Dale's femme-fatale wife, Carol, who's been shacking up with a ruddy bloke named Frank (Robert Taylor) during Dale's incarceration.

Frank is a suit-wearing criminal management type who has planned a heist for Dale and his brothers - the jolly prison butcher Mal (Damien Richardson) and muscle-bound, weirdly unstable Shane (Joel Edgerton) - to execute upon their release. Frank has other tricks up his sleeve as well - but so do Dale and Carol.

Roberts appears to be aiming for the standard crime-film tongue-in-cheekiness that's been in vogue since Quentin Tarantino's heyday, but in truth the tone is all over the place. We're supposed to be amused by someone having holes shot in his feet and, on some level, to be moved by the brothers' various romantic attachments.

But almost everything here turns out to be a loose end, from Shane's Oedipal romance with his prison therapist to Mal's hook-up with a woman on the road. The feelings and characters come and go, leaving only an impression of some indefinable quirkiness.

Roberts' handling of the actual robberies is no more coherent. The opening heist is so muddled, you're not sure which vehicle is being commandeered and for what purpose.

Later, the brothers move in and out of prison without adequate plot support, and the inevitable road-chase portion of the story has a rote quality; you've seen one criminal hiding a stash of money in a vent, you've seen them all.

Roberts' greatest asset is his lead actors. Pearce is so versatile that he's as instantly credible as the ferret-featured Dale, who reads relationship self-help books in between crimes, as he was as the squeaky-clean Lieutenant Exley of "L.A. Confidential."

Carol, meanwhile, makes Griffiths' "Six Feet Under" character seem prim and sexually inhibited by comparison; you'll never think of smiley faces the same way after you see how she paints one on the prison visiting-room window separating her and Dale.

But you never sense that any of these characters are real people. They're more like chess pieces being moved around by players who lack a master's command of the game.

The suspense hinges on who's ultimately going to double-cross whom and where Carol's loyalties ultimately lie, but you never have any stake in the outcome. "The Hard Word" never steals our hearts, though it does kill time.

"The Hard Word"
Written and directed by Scott Roberts; photographed by Brian Breheny; edited by Martin Connor; production designed by Paddy Reardon; music by David Thrussell; produced by Al Clark. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, June 27. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (strong violence, language, sexuality, brief drug use).
Dale - Guy Pearce
Carol - Rachel Griffiths
Frank - Robert Taylor
Shane - Joel Edgerton
Mal - Damien Richardson
Jane - Rhondda Findleton

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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