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Photograph by John Tsiavis

Link, Link, Nudge, Nudge: Guy Pearce plays a sly crook in 'The Hard Word.'

The Ausphalt Jungle

Rachel Griffiths fills up the blank spaces in an empty gangster pic from down under

By Richard von Busack

THOUGH IT'S TITLED The Hard Word, first-time Australian director Scott Roberts makes an easy job of it, basing his three wacky criminals (he says) on the Cartwrights; apparently Bonanza still haunts the Australian TV airwaves. The Twentyman Brothers are a gang of three who conduct their violence-free heists under the protection of one bent lawyer named Frank (Robert Taylor) and a couple of police on the take.

Twelve jobs have gone by without significant hitches. Now the trio faces its 13th robbery, and the biggest yet--a post-race-day robbery of a bookie's club in the strangely named Batman Hotel in Melbourne. Frank has brought some new talent along for this job, including a thug called Tarzan, who likes guns far too much. The job goes wrong, and the three are forced to run for it in the hinterlands between Melbourne and Sydney.

The film relies heavily on cuteness, with the money being hidden in a roadside attraction marked by a jumbo inflatable cow. Little bits of shtick stick out like veins of fat in a pastrami sandwich. The cast is watchable, though. Guy Pearce, almost unrecognizable under the hair grease, plays the mastermind, Dale, who keeps poring over marriage manuals. Damien Richardson plays the Hoss-like brother Mal. Mal is an affable butcher boy, a breezy bonehead with a San Jose Sharks watch cap. His idea of coming on to a woman is saying, "You smell as good as Christmas dinner." (He's so affably silly that the line works.)

More subtle and not to be overlooked is brother Shane (Joel Edgerton). He wants the nickname "Muscles," but no one uses it. Edgerton's resemblance to Richard Burton goes deep. When you watched Burton in lighter roles, you could see through the crumbling poetic exterior to the wary, hopeful con artist underneath. In one moment, where Edgerton nurses on his female psychiatrist's nipple, he has one eye open, mutely asking for permission.

The Hard Word is pretty much comedy relief looking for dramatic relief. Fortunately, in this soufflé, there is something good and firm to hold onto: Rachel Griffiths as the tart in the story (and this story needs tarting up). The superb Griffiths turns up in pushup bra and a yellow wig playing a fox-faced vixen named Carol, who is married to Dale (she's the reason he spends his nights reading marriage manuals). She has one startling trick; she uses what an ad-copy writer would call her "intimate fluids" to draw a little smiley face on the glass in the prison visiting room, just to tease her imprisoned husband. Sadly, this authentic creature of film noir is neglected for the heist sequence; without Griffiths, there's as much empty space in this film as there is in the Island continent itself.

The Hard Word (R; 102 min.), directed and written by Scott Roberts, photographed by Brian J. Breheny and starring Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths and Joel Edgerton, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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