Taking a classic piece of literature and giving it a modern kick is typically treading on shaky ground. For instance, my opinion on the 1996 `Romeo + Juliet' is that it is one of the most bombastic insults to my intelligence of all time, using dialogue that had absolutely no business being used in a movie set in the 1990's (How can anyone keep a straight face when Leonardo DiCaprio says `Exiled...?!'. I was interested in seeing `Huck and the King of Hearts' for years, but at the same time I was scared it would also be a bad movie. Luckily, writer Christopher Sturgeon used Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn' and used it as a reference rather than carbon copying it. He created an all new story and cleverly injected some of Twain in its characters and morals. It's sort of like a coming-of-age family drama with a little bit of comedy thrown in for good measure. Much of it is so entertaining that it is a shame it is nearly pulled down completely with its two negative elements, which I will get to later.
The plot begins similarly to Twain's original story. Huck (whose real name is Billy) is a boy in Hannibal, Missouri that loves to spend his days riding his bicycle and fishing. But when he comes home he must deal with his drunken stepfather. The main difference here is that Huck's mother is still alive, and she loves him but does very little to restrain her husband's verbal and emotional abusiveness. When the stepfather sells Huck's bike, it is the last straw. Huck leaves home with some clothes, his fishing rod, and some money, grabs a bus to Los Angeles, and visits his flighty aunt (Dee Wallace-Stone), who is unaware Huck has run away. What Huck hopes to do from there is go to Las Vegas to track down the estranged grandfather he has never met, but someone who he believes to be a gallant, wandering adventurer. When his mother starts looking for him and tracks him down in Los Angeles, Huck runs away from his aunt and pairs up with a Native American con man (Graham Greene) named Jim. Jim is on the run from a drug lord's henchman (Joe Piscopo) that has killed his associate and is accusing Jim of running off with some of his boss's recently stolen drug money. So the two new pals travel in a beat-up only minivan, bound for Las Vegas, both running from different types of people.
So what are those two negative points? One of them is the dark element of murder that runs throughout the film. We watch as Joe Piscopo kills a man and continues a murderous journey to track down Graham Greene. But at the same time, Piscopo is also the center of most of the film's humor, as he is rather oafish. The mixture of murder and humor in a movie like this is a rather oddball blend. It wouldn't have been too hard for Sturgeon to avoid the murder scene and just have Piscopo accuse Greene of stealing money. The other negative is Huck himself, played by Chauncey Leopardi. With a name like that, you wonder how he has remained active in Hollywood, but on the other hand, look at that overrated hack actor DiCaprio. Leopardi sometimes gets on your nerves. His character often breaks out into fits of rage that make you want to reach into your television set and pretend to be his on-screen stepfather. The kid often comes off as a spoiled, loud-mouthed snot, and most of the adults, except for Wallace, just let him do it. There is also a `love scene' where Huck's lips lock a much older girl, a scene that is really bad. At this point, I thought the movie was heading South, but it is pulled free by the rest of the cast. Unlike Leopardi's Huck, Dee Wallace's Aunt Darlene is a purposefully grating character that is funny to hear. When Huck's mother shows up, the sisterly bickering is interesting and humorous. Certainly the single-best asset is Greene as Jim. He is a Native American with a sad and troubled past, unsure of where his lonely life is going to go next. His pairing up with Huck ends up being a blessing to his life, and a blessing to those watching him; just watch the intensity he brings to the card game scene. It's good that someone as skilled in acting as Greene is on board, since he usually has to pull Leopardi's dead weight around.
But the thing that is vital to the movie is the way Sturgeon would handle Huck's goal. When Huck makes it to Vegas, he traces his grandfather's address, only to find a man (John Astin) who claims to be a friend of Huck's grandfather and tells Huck his grandfather has been gone for years. This is the scene that would make or break the entire movie, and it is a wonderful scene, thanks equally to Sturgeon's well-written dialogue and Astin's really good acting (and I am not exaggerating; it's really GOOD). So even though this movie's negatives (including, I suppose the puzzlement over what Huck's mother is going to do about the stepfather and her own poor parenting in the near-future), it still manages to be a little gem of a film thanks to the talents of Greene and Astin. Zantara's score: 7 out of 10.