A still from Twist.

If you’re going to make a successful action-heist flick, you need a solid movie star to anchor it, someone audiences will instinctively root for even when they’re committing crimes. If you don’t have that, you need a clever plot filled with twists, reversals, and betrayals. Without that, you at least need a snappy script full of smart one-liners. If you don’t have that, you might be able to get by on a distinct sense of style. And if you don’t have any of those things, you’ve got Twist.

A creatively bankrupt adaptation of one of the greatest authors to ever write in the English language, Twist is an awful movie, but it suffers even more from the comparison to its source material. If you’re going to take on Charles Dickens, you’d better give it your all, and Twist offers almost nothing of interest. The idea of a modern-day Oliver Twist conjures up a range of fascinating possibilities, but director Martin Owen and his team of writers came up with the most uninteresting characterization possible for its protagonist: an extreme graffiti artist who joins up with a team of thieves mostly because he has a thing for a cute girl.

With no more on its mind than a teenage crush, Twist half-heartedly tries to distract its audience with unimaginative chase scenes, a bevy of pretty young faces, and a faux-punk aesthetic including brightly-colored sets and corporate pop-rock on the soundtrack. A slumming Michael Caine shows up as Fagin, now a retired art dealer overseeing his team of young, spunky thieves. His presence is meant to lend an air of respectability to the proceedings, but Caine never knew a check he wouldn’t cash, and the presence of an actor who couldn’t accept his first Oscar in person because he was filming Jaws IV shouldn’t raise your expectations. Lena Headey also appears as Sikes, Fagin’s brutish accomplice, reimagined here as a scary, sexy lesbian. In a film this regressive, I’m not sure there is any other kind. 

Genuine movie star Jude Law contributes some DNA in the form of his son Rafferty Law, playing the titular orphan with all of his father’s looks and literally none of his charm or technique. When we first see him, he is bounding through the streets of London, evading the police with a routine of some very fast running and advanced parkour. Once Law catches his fake breath, he is forced to reckon with the character of Twist, who is written badly—we know that he likes art, and that’s it—and acted even worse. Law isn’t recognizable as an artist, a thief, or a believable human being. His casting perfectly reflects the adaptation’s overarching mistake, and, in fact, the mistake of so many films of this era: When you link your film to a beloved work to capture the audience’s attention, it only highlights the ways you fail to measure up to the superior source material.

Not that there weren’t opportunities. Like all Dickens, the story of Oliver Twist reveals hard realities about how society treats its most vulnerable. A gritty remake with an eye towards communities of color might have worked, but Twist turns that idea into Disneyland. The thieves’ hideout looks like the headquarters of a tech start-up, with punk art and an open-office concept that would surely be conducive to thieving productivity. The film’s violence is mostly bloodless, and the romance is unbearably chaste. There’s a moment in which Twist accidentally touches hands with his crush Nancy (Sophie Simnett), and the two hot twentysomethings quickly pull them apart as if they were at a Catholic school dance. If you’re going to be virginal, that’s fine, but you can’t be punk at the same time.

It all leads to a question that unfortunately must be asked of a great many films these days: Who is this for? Children wouldn’t care much about a Dickens adaptation. Teenagers would need a little more sex or violence. Adults, frankly, have better things to do. Twist tries to navigate a narrow path towards a mainstream audience, but it fails to fully realize any sense of story, character, and purpose. In trying to be all things to all people, Twist ends up nothing to no one. 

YouTube video

Twist is available to stream on VOD starting Friday, July 30.