[Screen It]

(2000) (Jamie Foxx, David Morse) (R)

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Comedy/Action/Adventure: A smalltime thief is unknowingly bugged by the feds and used as bait in hopes of luring out a high-tech thief who masterminded a $42 million dollar gold heist from the Federal Reserve.
Alvin Sanders (JAMIE FOXX) is a smalltime thief who's just been incarcerated for stealing a bunch of prawns from a local restaurant. He ends up in jail with John Jaster (ROBERT PASTORELLI), one half of a high-tech criminal team that's just stolen $42 million worth of gold from the Federal Reserve. Realizing he could die at any moment from his worsening heart condition, Jaster tells Alvin to relay a cryptic message to his wife regarding the whereabouts of the hidden gold.

Alvin doesn't know what it means and Edgar Clenteen (DAVID MORSE), the terse and no-nonsense U.S. Treasury investigator working the case, hopes it will lead to the gold or Jaster's partner, Bristol (DOUG HUTCHISON), but it does neither.

Eighteen months later, both Clenteen and Bristol are still looking for that gold. As such, Clenteen decides to secretly plant a tracking device in Alvin's jaw, release him from prison, and then let the word out that he knows where the gold is hidden. Knowing that Bristol is probably observing their every move, Clenteen hopes that Alvin will act as the bait that will lure in the criminal.

To the dismay of Clenteen and his subordinates, agents Wooly (DAVID PAYMER), Blum (JAMIE KENNEDY), Boyle (NESTOR SERRANO) and Walsh (MEGAN DODDS) who are tracking Alvin's every word and move, the ex-con immediately gets into trouble, although he decides to go straight once he learns that his girlfriend, Lisa Hill (KIMBERLY ELISE), gave birth to their child while he was in prison.

Even so, run-ins with his fellow criminal brother, Stevie Sanders (MIKE EPPS) and his two criminal associates, Ramundo (KIRK ACEVEDO) and Julio (JEFFREY DONOVAN), puts Alvin in danger of being busted again, thus threatening to derail Clenteen's plan. Thus, from that point on, the feds do what they can to seize Bristol by keeping Alvin safe and secure, while he slowly begins to realize what's going on.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although there are all sorts of materials - both organic and synthetic - that people use in attempting to lure in whatever it is they're trying to catch, the first thing that comes to my mind when hearing the word, "bait," are night crawlers. Better known to the common folk as earthworms, the invertebrates are slick and shiny, they wiggle around a lot but don't get anywhere fast, they're not particularly smart, clever or imaginative, and when cut open for closer inspection, they're nothing but a mess.

How appropriate then that that latest Jamie Foxx action comedy has that name. No, we're not talking about "Night Crawlers," but "Bait," a formulaic yarn that fits the above description and resembles previous films starring the likes of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. In other words, all of them feature young African-American criminal characters whose brassy, smart aleck attitudes mask a cowardly demeanor that eventually becomes both more heroic and likable.

When they get caught up in a criminal situation that's over their heads, the resourceful heroic qualities eventually replace the wisecracking ones, and they solve whatever predicament they're facing. It's a tried and true formula, and director Antoine Fuqua ("The Replacement Killers"), milks it for everything it's worth, delivering a film that's certain to entertain less discerning or discriminating viewers.

Just like the average night crawler, however, the film doesn't stand up very well once the dissection begins. While the basic story - as penned by Tony Gilroy ("The Devil's Advocate," "Extreme Measures"), Andrew Scheinman (producer of films such as "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally") and Adam Scheinman ("Mickey Blue Eyes," "Little Big League") - is generally okay despite being farfetched and lifting elements from other films such as "Total Recall" (the "bug" inside the head bit) and "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (the untraceable phone call that bounces from city to city), it's in the finer details that the film shows its messy and less than intelligent "guts."

For starters, and like Fuqua's first work and those of many other former music video turned feature filmmakers, this film is all flash and little or no substance. While not all comedies have or need such depth and few action films can count that as a selling point, I for one, am getting tired of movies that look great and/or use all sorts of innovative and flashy camerawork - not to mention sliding and spinning cars and tanker trucks that defy the laws of physics and friction in general - but are otherwise essentially hollow vessels.

While the filmmaker attempts to place some heartfelt moments into this picture (notably Foxx's character going straight and developing a heart and courage), they feel contrived and, worse yet, simply can't be taken seriously. While Foxx ("Any Given Sunday," "Booty Call") delivers a decently humorously and occasionally hilarious performance along the lines of Murphy, Lawrence and others who blazed the character trail before him, he's never allowed to stray far beyond the paint by numbers formula that outlines his character.

The filmmakers also take the easy way out of having the Feds tail and/or track Foxx's character by planting a futuristic surveillance bug on him. Although their ability to listen in on his conversations provides for some comedic moments (such as the obligatory sex scene that gets everyone else all hot and bothered), their essentially passive nature doesn't exactly make them or the film that interesting to watch.

That's particularly true when the talented David Morse ("The Green Mile," "Crazy in Alabama") is reduced to a one-note, over the top character. The more interesting and developed the antagonist, the better the film, but neither Morse, nor any of his character's subordinates - including the one played by David Paymer ("The Hurricane," "Mumford") - are particularly intriguing or memorable (in comparison, for instance, to the characters played by Tommy Lee Jones and his cohorts in "The Fugitive").

The same holds true for Doug Hutchison ("The Green Mile," "A Time to Kill") as the main villain. While we're supposed to be impressed and/or intimidated by his mental acumen and lack of fear, that doesn't happen as his soft-spoken, yet malevolent cross between REM's Michael Stipe and actor John Malkovich gets old rather quickly and isn't convincing, intriguing or menacing enough to make for a lasting impression.

Meanwhile, Mike Epps ("Next Friday"), Kirk Acevedo ("The Thin Red Line") and Jeffrey Donovan ("Sleepers") appear for some brief comic relief and are occasionally successful at that, and Kimberly Elise ("Beloved") shows up as the token girlfriend, but all are similarly and instantly forgettable.

While Fuqua keeps thing moving along a brisk clip that prevents the proceedings from bogging down or becoming too boring, one's appreciation of the film will depend on their view of Foxx's performance and his handling of what's essentially a well-worn character, as well as the ability to tolerate, overlook and/or enjoy mindless, empty "entertainment."

If those factors pass the viewer's tests, the show will probably be enjoyable to some degree. For everyone else, however, they'll see this just for what it really is - a dumb and messy project that seems to be acting as bait to land Foxx some more prominent, cinematic catches. It's too early to tell whether it will be successful, but this piece of "Bait" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 7, 2000 / Posted September 15, 2000

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