The idea of updating Oliver Twist is not an original one.
August Rush gave it a shot onscreen in 2007 with a heavy helping of contemporary treacle. The Disney folks anthropomorphized it with Oliver & Company, adding tunes by Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and more. And while the familiar stage musical Oliver! kept the original book’s period London setting, another theatrical adaptation, Twist, moved its story to Depression-era New Orleans. There’s a 2003 grim Canadian update, also called Twist, 1996’s Twisted with William Hickey, and 2004’s South African Boy Called Twist. I won’t go into the pile of books that have taken a new coat of paint to Charles Dickens’ second novel.
The latest twist on Oliver Twist, a 2021 action-adventure film, is also called Twist.
Directed by Martin Owen (The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud) with the script credited to a trio of writers beyond Mr. Dickens, the film stars Raff Law as a street rat who gets absorbed into a gang led by Fagin (Michael Caine), an art thief under the thumb of Sikes (gender-swapped and played by an appropriately grim Lena Headey).
Adept at leaping across rooftops and scaling walls, Twist is a graffiti artist with a bit of a hero complex. One of the first things we see him do is tag a traffic cop’s van after its occupant gives a ticket to and mocks a young mother. See? He’s a nice guy at heart.
His artful dodging brings him to the attention of Dodge (Rita Ora), who gives him a song-free welcome into Fagin’s heart-of-gold gang. While Fagin isn’t big on following the law, he is big on family and considers this ragtag bunch his. That’s something Twist is missing, having lost his mother pre-credits (and, theoretically, his father before her). Plus, where Twist was formerly sleeping on a cold rooftop, Fagin’s den has foosball and spaghetti.
Dickens gave his story solid bones so there’s potential here. Some of the choices work and some don’t. Remember Nancy, the hard-living, somehow-optimistic mother figure from the original? Here, Nancy, aka Red (Sophie Simnett), is a fellow Fagin-ite who Twist has a crush on but who is also mired in an abusive relationship with Sikes. Interesting. But rather than the pickpocketing that was the original gang’s bread and butter, this crew is involved in an art heist that would test the skills of Danny Ocean. Unlikely.
The film seems to be striving for the kinetic energy of Baby Driver and the team camaraderie of Now You See Me, arriving at neither in a consistent-enough way. There’s a fun, swift sequence involving a purloined cell phone that hints at how fun this flick could have been. But credibility gets pushed — as often happens in action films — during the big action sequences.
Call it the Indiana Jones curse, but since Indy’s adventurous antics, filmmakers seem to believe that we’ll buy coincidence after lucky break after coincidence after lucky break. Rather than thrill, a fall from a zipline into the back of a carriage is just eye-rolling and undermines our investment in this world.
The increased desire to give non-superheroes superhero abilities is just as frustrating. What may work in a Fast & Furious film can kill the connection in a slightly more grounded film such as this, where the rules of physics should actually apply. At one point, Sikes puts herself at absurd risk with a dubious recalibration of her plan, assuming that she could singlehandedly take out a quartet of armed cops. It’s almost as difficult to believe as a fake mustache Caine sports at one point that looks like it was purchased at Spencer’s Gifts.
On the whole, though, Twist actually frustrated me less than the aforementioned Baby Driver — which turned into a shooting match and featured not-very-interesting crimes — and Now You See Me, which drifted into absurdity. Twist doesn’t have the creative ambition behind it to make the leaps that those films did. Instead, it’s as if the screenwriters realized their book report was due in just a few days and didn’t really need much of a grade to pass. For all of its look-at-me energy, it feels like the work of slackers, which makes it easier to dismiss than to actively dislike.