Big Bounce
review by Dan Lybarger, 23 January 2003

Elmore Leonardís crime novels have a lot fine traits that make them terrific fodder for movies:

  • Quirky but believable characters, in particular female protagonists who have something more to do than look good on the heroís arm
  • Snappy dialogue
  • A droll, acidic wit

Thatís not to say bringing his books to the screen is easy.

With Leonardís serpentine plot lines, it takes a deft hand to bring these stories to film because viewers only have a few seconds to grasp whatís happening while readers can always go back a few pages to catch what theyíve missed.

It takes a sharp adapter like Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) or Quentin Tarantino (who retooled Leonardís Rum Punch into Jackie Brown) who can ably pick out what elements to cut or keep from the books. Both made interesting deviations (the film of Out of Sight features more of the character Albert Brooks plays) that helped the films to flow much more smoothly.

Screenwriter Sebastian Guiterrez (Gothika) hasnít quite mastered the art in his reworking of Leonardís The Big Bounce. Despite some inspired casting and a photogenic Hawaiian backdrop, neither Guiterrez nor director George Armitage imbue the tale with Leonard's unique balance of wit and tension.

The filmmakers should at least get some credit for selecting a nearly ideal leading man. With his crooked nose and generally goofy manner, Owen Wilson effortlessly occupies the run down shoes of Jack Ryan (not the Tom Clancy hero).

Jack has gravitated to the Aloha state after bungling his way through the American mainland. Able to do little than lose legitimate gigs or steal relative paltry sums by breaking and entering, Jack almost winds up in jail for swinging a baseball bat at his mean-spirited foreman (Vinnie Jones). Curiously, the charges against him are quickly dropped, and Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman), the judge who could have presided over the case, hires Jack as a handyman at his collection of resort cabins.

While Freman might imbue the judge with his usual stern paternal manner, Crewes has taken a liking to Jack because his stunt has slowed the construction of a luxury hotel by crooked tycoon Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise). Ritchie's venture could hurt the judge's own plans, and most of the locals hate the smug mogul's manner. People seem to think even less of him for building a hotel when he's in the middle of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Through some accounting wizardry that would make Enron proud, Ritchie manages to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed to pay off local unions in his hunting lodge.

Because even his gorgeous mistress Nancy (Sara Foster, a former model who can thankfully do more than look good in a bikini) hates Ray's guts, she's more than eager to tip the beleaguered Jack into trying to break in and swipe it. After engaging in all sorts of illicit thrills like stealing cars and having sex in bizarre locations, Jack, who's better judgment is non-existent, is as eager as he is wary.

The Big Bounce might have been a little more fun if Jack were a little more of the latter. Nancy may be attractive, but a viewer keeps wondering why he's not more concerned about the dangerous types who defend Ray's interests. On paper, Armitage would seem the perfect helmer for this material because his adaptation of Charles Willeford's Miami Blues effortlessly alternated between genuine chills and off-kilter humor.

The Big Bounce, however, lacks anything as threatening as Alec Baldwin's sadistically suave con artist in the previous film. Most of Jack's antagonists, like a bone-headed thug played by Charlie Sheen, pose less than a nominal menace. Jack's rivals are even dimmer than he is, so it's hard to get worked up over whether any of them wind up with the loot.

Armitage plays things just a little too broadly. Some of the performers, like the normally terrific Bebe Neuwirth as Ray's disgruntled wife, have little more to do than ham it up. As a result, the film seems oddly languid for its almost 90-minute running time. The abrupt transitions almost make one wonder if a good chuck of the movie is on the cutting room floor.

Thankfully, the banter has some of Elmore's flair (Freeman advises a maladroit associate, "Don't think. It's bad for the team."), and Wilson can get a few laughs simply by flashing his klutzy grin.

The Big Bounce is actually a remake of a 1969 adaptation that starred Ryan O'Neal as Jack. The original version is finally coming out on video in March, but if Leonard Maltin's assessment ("muddle-headed tale") is still valid, neither version offers an honest take on Elmore Leonard's singular vision of grifting.

Directed by:
George Armitage

Starring:
Owen Wilson
Butch Helemano
Charlie Sheen
Vinnie Jones
Gregory Sporleder
Terry Ahue
Pete Johnson
Mike Renfro
Tony Dorsett
Brian L. Keaulana
Morgan Freeman
Willie Nelson
Andrew Wils
Sara Foster
Gary Sinise

Written by:
Sebastian Gutierrez

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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