XX 1/2 "Bait," with Jamie Foxx, David Morse, Doug Hutchison, Kimberly Elise, David Paymer. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, from a screenplay by Andrew Scheinman, Adam Scheinman and Tony Gilroy. 119 minutes. Several theatres. "R" - Restricted because of language and violence.
The rising stardom of Jamie Foxx perplexes me. He's not particularly handsome or funny. He always seemed the most forgettable member of TV's "In Living Color." One of his first starring film roles, "Booty Call," was an embarrassment, and included a scene where Foxx made love while imitating - badly - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Not exactly a classy moment in cinema.) He was good in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday" but hardly stole the show.
Yet his WB Network program, "The Jamie Foxx Show," is in its fifth season; and with "Bait," Hollywood seems interested in passing him off as another Will Smith: an African-American comedian who can do action films.
How is he? Again, not bad. But there's a mumbling, reserved quality to him, and his shtick, when he resorts to it, isn't that funny.
His best bit in the film is his earliest. As Alvin Sanders, petty crook, he and his friend, Stevie (Mike Epps), break into Deltesio Seafoods to steal . . . prawns. Stevie's against the plan but Alvin waxes rhapsodic on the crustaceans. "Eating prawn," he says, "that's like five or six shrimp!" Of course he's caught and tossed back into prison.
At the same time, there's a gold heist at the Federal Reserve, but the two crooks aren't compatible. Jaster (Robert Pastorelli) is older, with a heart condition, while Bristol (Doug Hutchison) is a cold-hearted computer genius with a shaved head, Clark Kent glasses, and a flat, lifeless voice. He kills two guards execution-style, which proves too violent for Jaster, who scrams with the $42 million in gold bars. He's promptly arrested, sans gold, and placed in the same cell with Alvin.
When Jaster dies while being interrogated by hard-nosed U.S. Treasury Investigator Edgar Clenteen (David Morse), both Bristol and the U.S. Treasury assume he said something meaningful to Alvin. He did but it's unhelpful: "The Bronx Zoo" and "There's no place like home." No gold is found.
Eventually Clenteen convinces his superiors that Bristol, who has tapped into the government's computers, is a serious threat to national security. Clenteen's plan? Implant a tracking device in Alvin's jaw, release him from prison on a technicality, and use him as bait to draw out Bristol.
"When he serves his purpose . . .," Clenteen shrugs. "Well, you know what happens to bait."
This plan is intriguing for two reasons. One, it plays into various paranoid theories about the U.S. government in the African-American community. And two, within the context of the film, it is short-sighted enough to actually be a government plan.
A genius can tap into government computers, right? So, rather than creating a tighter wall of security around those computers, let's just eliminate the genius. Because surely no one else will ever be able to figure it out.
From this point on, the film becomes a mixture of "The Fugitive" - with Morse, in the Tommy Lee Jones role, leading a crack team of technicians who follow Alvin's every move - and the Will Smith vehicle, "Enemy of the State," in which Smith played a lawyer who was tracked by corrupt NSA agents.
Possibilities for something more original surface occasionally. Because the last thing the Treasury Department needs is for Alvin to return to jail, they keeping plopping $5,000 into his lap as incentive against recidivism.
"From now on," Clenteen intones, "Alvin Sanders leads a charmed life."
Instead, the filmmakers went the predictable action-adventure route. The computer genius resurfaces. Alvin is captured. His girlfriend and son are threatened. There's a bomb. Can he save them?
The film moves along well enough, but there's a B-team quality to it: Foxx instead of Will Smith; Morse instead of Tommy Lee Jones. Doug Hutchison, the sadistic, pipsqueak prison guard from "The Green Mile," makes an impression as the evil computer genius, but not enough to recommend the movie.
Antoine Fuqua's ("The Replacement Killers") direction, meanwhile, is overly frenetic. Oh, and about halfway through I figured out where the gold was. I even knew how Alvin would figure it out.
I did like the prawn joke, though.