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
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.