Cinema Signal:

Murder She Wrote: Majoring in Murder

. "The Hard Word"

For most of the first act of this movie, I thought it was an Aussie take on a heist film, with three cool specialists in armed robbery. Intriguing as that setup was, during the second act, the style had changed to a Philip Marlowe noirish crime piece. By the last act, I realized it was both of those but with a campy unseriousness about it, sometimes reducing itself to a Keystone Kops comedy of errors.

Our three heroes are brother convicts sprung from prison because of their ability to pull off their capers with dispatch and safety. As the one who comes up with the clever strategies, ringleader Dale Twentyman (Guy Pearce) has certain standards, and one of them is his insistence that "no one gets hurt". His bothers Mal (Damien Richardson), a sweet and perhaps a bit retarded master chef (as far as the prison population is concerned), and Shane (Joel Edgerton), the sometimes raging, creepy, close to the edge schizophrenic who likes to be called "Muscles" are perfectly willing to go along with Dale's insistence on carrying unloaded guns so long as he comes up with plans that work.

It turns out that Dale's lawyer Frank Malone (Robert Taylor) is in bed with corrupt cops. He has arranged for the brothers' release in order to pull off the robbery of an armored car loaded with loot. The plan comes with intel on location and schedule, giving our team an edge, which they are quick to exploit with security guard uniforms and all.

But, Malone isn't in bed only with dirty cops. Dale is convinced that Malone is bedding his wife, Carol (a rather cool and sensual Rachel Griffiths), despite the fact that Malone has arranged for a quickie between Dale and her while the loot is being divvied. In the first of many motivational cross currents, she puts out clues to all that Dale's fears about her philandering with the lawyer might be justified.

There's a double cross and the boys land back in jail. What untrusty counsel Malone was able to do once, he's able to pull off again and, this time, for a much bigger take and a much more ambitious operation. It's nothing less than the Melbourne Cup and a heist of the collection of bookies who gather post race with their gambling take. But, will this caper go any better for the boys? One thing's certain, Dale doesn't trust the shylock and his cop friends any farther than the space between a shark's teeth. So we're hoping he can outthink, outplan and outmaneuver the people most likely to pull the double cross. This culminates in a chase scene across the streets and bridges of Melbourne that turns the idea of a serious getaway into a Buster Keaton slapstick moment.

There's a certain fun factor in the comedy-of-errors part of the venture, but it's pervaded with indecisiveness about what the style should be, resulting in enough weakness of mind and character to blunt its edges. As though writer-director Scott Roberts sensed this problem, he incorporates wry self-deprecation into the mix, possibly to say that no one's taking this too seriously. He has certainly given Griffiths the freedom to vamp her golden tressed way through the saga as though she's on the mean streets of Hollywood with Bogie lurking in the shadows. She might well have patterned her performance on Bacall, but don't expect Lauren to take the rap.

Guy Pearce was, for me, an unrecognized standout in \i L.A. Confidential \i0 who further proved his acting depth as the prosecutor in \i Rules of Engagement \i0 and his virtuoso turn in \i Memento\i0 . Here he is now with his homies (born in the UK and immigrated to Australia), and he does his level best, but it's not quite enough to catch up with his more exemplary work. Both Damien Richardson and Joel Edgerton's natural uniqueness make them actors worth watching in future assignments.

Writer-Director Roberts, according to his press admissions, approached the story with an interesting angle, wanting to play a "crime \b\i does\b0\i0 pay" game. He creates the dirty cops and deceptive lawyer to make his team of robbers seem like the good guys. And, they do! They are unempowered and victimized, falling to forces higher up the food chain. If only Roberts (in his first feature film) didn't squander his story's holding power with muddled up events and characters, such as when Dale gives away the location of the hidden money to arch enemy Malone. In case you hadn't lost interest in Dale's wishy-washiness before, this inane act will pull the final plug.

On some levels, the picture entertains, with some surprising turns and nice bits of Aussie humor, but it ultimately belabors itself into feeling much longer than its 103 minutes.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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