Bait

Shelly Long. Tom Selleck. Ted Danson. The roll call of TV celebrities who have had a tough time jumping from the cathode ray tube to the silver screen is a long and not so illustrious one. Jamie Foxx is the latest small screen semi-star to attempt the move. One of the few noteworthy components of last year’s horrific Any Given Sunday, he’s now taken on a starring role in the one venue where previous prime-time success seems to translate: action-adventure. Bait is a formulaic shoot-em-up that eventually collapses under the weight of one too many set pieces. But before it does, both Foxx and the film as a whole provide more than just the usual quota of explosions and expletives.

Alvin Sanders (Foxx) is a petty thief whose idea of moving up in the world is stealing prawns instead of shrimp. After his latest failed caper, he briefly shares a holding cell with a much bigger fish – the "brawn" half of a duo of high-tech thieves that just made an unauthorized late-night withdrawal of $42 million in bullion from the Federal Reserve. Alvin’s cellmate (Robert Pastorelli) has a heart attack and dies, but not before gasping out a cryptic message for his wife – he knows she needs some protection against the mastermind of the operation, still at large. Treasury investigator Edgar Clenteen (David Morse) figures that Alvin may have heard something from his cellmate that would make him an attractive target for the one that got away, so he arranges for Alvin to be released early. But before being set free as human chum, Alvin’s knocked unconscious in a prison "accident" so that a tiny sensing device can be implanted in his jaw, enabling the Feds to track him via satellite and even monitor his conversations.

All this is fairly straightforward stuff, but for its first hour Bait largely surprises, demonstrating much more style than expected from such rote base stock. Director Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) and Director of Photography Tobias Schleissler continually turn the mundane into the almost poetic. Early on, they transform what could have been a standard chase scene into a montage with a skidding tanker truck that borders on ballet. Street scenes are gritty and flatly colored, in effective contrast to those set in the Feds’ command center that’s keeping tabs on Alvin.

Another unexpected pleasure is the richness of the characters. As Clenteen, David Morse is alternately hard-ass and humane, a man who’s driven but not single-minded. The staffers monitoring Alvin at the command center are more fully formed than the usual banks of technoid drones shown at keyboards; they all have distinct personalities and react to Alvin’s travails correspondingly. And as the villain, Doug Hutchinson (Tooms on TV’s X-Files) displays an icy efficiency that perfectly mates with the technology he employs to regularly hack into the Feds’ computers – he’s John Malkovich’s sociopath son.

For the film’s first hour, Jamie Foxx is an unfortunate weak link. His performance starts out as more Stepin Fetchit than Stanislavsky, jive lines quickly proving tiresome. Then a strange dual transition takes place. In a quiet scene with his infant son, Alvin is transformed – maturing as we watch. It’s a remarkable conversion, touching and completely believable. And from that point on Foxx’s Alvin sloughs off his streetwise and cocky carapace and becomes a man with a mind, not just a mouth.

But just when Foxx’s vector begins ascending, the rest of the film unfortunately banks over and starts a long slow dead-stick glide. The smart and stylish is supplanted by the familiar and inevitable as sparks and screeching tires start to predominate. Most disappointingly, the evil genius that heretofore had been keeping the forces of the US Government at bay with his intellect sadly becomes just another thug – with a gun, briefcase full of torture tools, and a handy all-purpose bomb-with-a-digital-countdown-timer.

The only surprise in the third act of Bait is that a film that started so promisingly can squander most of the good will it built up earlier. It’s a strange zero-sum game – one where Jamie Foxx and the film he’s in aren’t allowed to both be interesting at the same time. – Bob Aulert