When it comes to the crime-action genre, Australia does better in its weekly television cop shows than at the movies. On television at least there is a relaxed approach to characterisation and a willingness to explore the strange netherworld of lifestyles beyond the law.
On screen, the expressions of Aussie cops and crims alike are fixed in a permanent scowl. Guys are tough, women are schemers, and the verbal obscenity flows without any hardboiled poetry. Plot and settings are reduced to functional abstractions – a junkyard or underpass here, a double-cross or Mexican standoff there.
The Hard Word joins the likes of Risk (2000) and Heaven's Burning (1997) in the gloomy gallery of failed Australian crime films. Here, the model aspired to by writer-director Scott Roberts is clearly the Tarantino and Guy Ritchie school of violent, eccentric black comedy, with a bit of picaresque road movie mixed in for novelty's sake.
The Twentyman brothers, Dale (Guy Pearce), Mal (Damien Richardson) and Shane (Joel Edgerton), are released from jail – but only in order to commit a daring Melbourne Cup robbery organised by a shady lawyer, Frank (Robert Taylor). Meanwhile, Mal's hard-as-nails wife, Carol (Rachel Griffiths), continues an affair with Frank.
Despite all their scowling, the Twentyman brothers are actually a rather genteel, non-violent bunch – as if Roberts was afraid we might not like or identify with them otherwise. The murdering is left to the really psychotic crooks who come along on the big job uninvited. And then the cashed-up brothers must hit the highway with various parties in hot pursuit.
Like too many local efforts of this sort, proceedings have the air of kids playing out a dress-ups fantasy. Where a Martin Scorsese crime film mixes stars, character actors and non-professionals in a totally believable way, here the parade of familiar faces from television and stand-up comedy almost never manages to strike an authentically low-life note.
While Edgerton and Richards perform in a naturalistic and often amusing way, Pearce and Griffiths look particularly uncomfortable and are quite unconvincing as (respectively) tough guy and femme fatale. Others who pepper the plot, such as Vince Colosimo, are required to do little but posture and point guns.
The Hard Word (a meaningless title) has occasional perverse touches and surprise elements that flare up and then go nowhere. Mal strikes up a brief relationship with a trusting, tipsy woman. Shane has a mother fixation worthy of James Cagney in White Heat (1949). The kitsch Big Cow tourist attraction gets an elaborate cameo.
But, despite some funny and intriguing moments, this is a flat, derivative genre exercise that never kicks into high gear.
© Adrian Martin May 2002