The Big Bounce
Director : George Armitage
Screenplay : Sebastian Gutierrez (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Owen Wilson (Jack Ryan), Morgan Freeman (Walter Crewes), Sara Foster (Nancy Hayes), Charlie Sheen (Bob Rogers, Jr.), Gregory Sporleder (Frank Pizzarro), Gary Sinise (Ray Ritchie), Bebe Neuwirth (Alison Ritchie), Vinnie Jones (Lou Harris), Willie Nelson (Joe Lurie), Harry Dean Stanton (Bob Rogers, Sr.)
Like Jack Ryan (Owen Wilson), its casually slacker protagonist, there is something almost too laid-back and slapdash about The Big Bounce, a crime-comedy based on the first novel by the prolific Elmore Leonard. Many have mistaken this for lackadaisical filmmaking, when it fact it is the film’s primary charm. Whereas many crime films hyperactively overexert themselves in their plot twists to show how “clever” they are, The Big Bounce just sort of glides along on the humor of its characters and the inherent intrigue created whenever multiple characters with multiple agendas all appear to be going after the same thing.
The setting has been changed from the grunge of northern Michigan to the crystal blue skies and sandy beaches of Hawaii, which gives the film a completely different vibe from the novel. Part of this decision may have been aesthetic in the eye-candy sense—it’s simply more pleasurable and relaxing to look at the tropical beauty of Hawaii than it is to look at gritty back alleys and industrial buildings in Michigan. Simultaneously, the lush new setting adds to the film’s casually relaxed tone, making it hard to take any of it very seriously.
The story revolves around Jack Ryan (no relation, of course, to Tom Clancy’s government agent hero), who opens with a bit of neo-noir voice-over narration in which he tells us he’s gone through life with his two friends, “bad luck and bad choices.” After being fired from a construction job because he hits his foreman (Vinnie Jones) in the face with a baseball bat (hey, it was deserved because the foreman is a jerk and a racist), Jack is taken in by Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman), the local district judge who also owns a small beach resort. He gives Jack a job doing odd tasks at the resort, which should ostensibly keep him out of trouble.
Trouble finds him, though, in the shapely form of Nancy Hayes (newcomer Sara Foster), the drop-dead gorgeous mistress of Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise), a local millionaire land developer and all-around bastard (it was Ritchie’s construction site Jack was working on when he hit the foreman). Nancy has a jones for badness, and she treats small-time criminal activities like breaking and entering and stealing cars as a form of foreplay. Jack is all too willing to play along, showing her the tricks of the trade while always hoping it leads to something more.
Nancy, of course, has a plan, which involves stealing a lot of money from Ritchie. Not surprisingly, Jack is an integral part of the plan. Because he is the protagonist, we can feel fairly secure in knowing where Jack is coming from, but Nancy is a complete enigma: Is she playing Jack straight or, in typical femme fatale fashion, is she setting him up like a patsy? All of this is further complicated by Jack’s relationship with Walter, who represents the only sense of law and order anywhere in the film, and also Jack’s friend, Frank (Gregory Sporleder), who is constantly hitting him up for money or trying to get him involved in petty schemes like ripping off wallets at a fraternity house. And then there’s Bob Jr. (Charlie Sheen, gamely sporting a cheesy-sleazy moustache), Ritchie’s righthand man who also has his eye on Nancy.
Director George Armitage has worked this kind of material before in Miami Blues (1990) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), both movies that mixed crime and comedy in sometimes strange ways. The Big Bounce is like a lighter version of those films, which mixed their humor and violence in much more outrageous and downright macabre ways (it’s the PG-13 to their R). True to its jaunty title (a “bounce,” by the way, refers in Elmore Leonard-speak to a crime), The Big Bounce is light and sometimes goofy. It has a slightly meandering quality, which allows you to focus more on Owen Wilson’s loose, funny performance than on the story, which, truth be told, isn’t all that great. By the time it winds around to the big climax, there’s not much tension because we’ve been enjoying the ride and couldn’t care less about the destination. That’s not really a bad thing though, when the ride itself is this much fun.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick