3 stars (out of 4)
Crime movies can be either tight and tense or irreverently funny, and in the hands of a pro's pro like writer Elmore Leonard and a neat director like George Armitage, they can be both at once.
"The Big Bounce" is the latest movie adapted from the works of Leonard, for the past half-century a salty master of tales about crimes, con games and the sometimes sinister, sometimes madly droll people who commit them. "The Big Bounce" was badly messed up by the movies in 1969, but this version gets it almost right.
It's one of Leonard's sun-drenched capers, set not in Florida ("Out of Sight") or Los Angeles ("Get Shorty"), but on Oahu, in Hawaii, among a group of attractive and often very amusing people, played with offhand relish by Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman and others.
Armitage, who works too seldom, is good with pulp noir stuff. His most recent movies were a good 1990 film of Charles Willeford's "Miami Blues" and the 1997 John Cusack crime comedy "Grosse Pointe Blank." Armitage and his cast seem to have lots of fun here. Wilson, with his languorous phony-doofus charm, plays larcenous but likable drifter Jack Ryan, a good-time guy running afoul of the rich, mean, crooked real estate developer Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise).
Jack becomes Ray's unintentional nemesis. Working for Ray's construction company, Jack racks up Ray's thuggish foreman, Lou Harris (Vinnie Jones), with a Louisville Slugger to the head. Then he starts romancing married Ray's doll on the side, Nancy Hayes (Sara Foster), right under the nose of Ray's inept, oddly mustached minion, Bob Jr. (acted without vanity by Charlie Sheen), who's been playing around with Nancy himself.
Jack has a kind of hula-shirted guardian angel in all this: Freeman as wry justice of the peace Walter Crewes, a judicious jokester who keeps Jack out of jail, then hires him to work at his resort. While playing benevolent paterfamilias, Walter keeps tossing Jack meaningful glances and wise aphorisms. (Example: "Sometimes things are exactly as they appear.") Bebe Neuwirth plays Alison, Ray's grasping wife; Gregory Sporler is Frank, Jack's undependable fellow crook; and Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton pop up as Walter's poker cronies.
Most of this bunch seems to have fewer collective morals than the average three-card monte dealer, and under Leonard and Armitage's practiced hands (assisted by screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez, recovering from "Gothika"), we watch them spin a complex series of crimes that begins with noggin-bashing and gets steadily more devious and dangerous. The catalyst is Nancy, who enlists Jack not only as her bedmate but as a partner in relieving Ray of $200,000 worth of ill-gotten gains - a heist that proves, like Nancy, more trouble than you'd guess.
"The Big Bounce" unwinds with the ease and casual menace of a snake in the sunlight, and the best thing about it, besides that top-notch cast, is the mood. Armitage is a onetime low-budget thrillmeister for Roger Corman, and his last few movies, including TV's "The Late Shift," suggest a talent underused. Here, he cooks up an amiable, low-pressure existence where lust and greed keep making the characters pratfall into danger.
Wilson and Freeman play the roles fumbled in the sorry '69 original by Ryan O'Neal and Van Heflin. Unlike their unlucky predecessors, Wilson and Freeman, share a marvelously bent sense of humor. They also share a flair for underplaying and letting moments come to them. Wilson is about as foxy-lazy and "what-the-hell" as a leading man can get.
But nobody is better at this kind of magnetic low-ball acting than Freeman, who has the most menacingly relaxed air of anyone around now: a dark, genial, knowing quality that suggests Walter Huston at his best. Foster, meanwhile, with her lanky limbs, blond mane and constant bikini, is a funny femme fatale; it's a hoot watching her tie males up in knots.
Leonard attracts filmmakers and casts like this because of his characters, and while "Bounce" isn't in the league of the Leonard-based "Out of Sight" or "Get Shorty," that's no reason to knock it. Like the frosty tropical drinks the people keep sipping here, it's refreshing and icy-cool, a sinful pleasure mixed by experts.
"The Big Bounce"
Directed by George Armitage; written by Sebastian Gutierrez; photographed by Jeffrey L. Kimball; edited by Brian Berdan, Barry Malkin; production designed by Stephen Altman; music by George S. Clinton; produced by Steve Bing, Jorge Saralegui. A Warner Brothers release; opens Friday, Jan. 30. Running time: 1:29. MPAA rating: PG-13 (Sexual content, nudity, language and violence).
Jack Ryan - Owen Wilson
Walter Crewes - Morgan Freeman
Ray Ritchie - Gary Sinise
Nancy Hayes - Sara Foster
Bob Jr. - Charlie Sheen
Alison Ritchie - Bebe Neuwirth