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Elmore Leonard has been writing genre novels for fifty years, starting out with Westerns and then, in tune with shifts in public taste, switching into crime fiction. His style is all his own, featuring seedy low-life types, ambiguous morality, double-crosses and tangled motivations, all wrapped up in hard-edged, snappy dialogue. His stories and novels have been made into a long list of movies, including such hits as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight. Some of the films have been eminently forgettable, too, including the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, which, according to one interview, even Leonard couldn’t sit through.
Now comes the remake, directed by George Armitage (Grosse Pointe Blank), with a cast headed up by Owen Wilson (in the role played by Ryan O’Neal in the earlier version, which may explain a good deal). This time around no one will be brandishing Oscars either, but Leonard ought to be able to sit through at least an hour of the engaging, if feather-weight hour and a half.
Placed in Hawaii, the stage is set with travelogue footage of the mountains and the surf, along with a soundtrack merging ukulele themes into more traditional, bluesy caper music. Jack Ryan (Wilson), a drifter with a minor police record, is working on a construction crew. He knocks out the racist foreman with a baseball bat, ending up briefly in jail and permanently in opposition to the builder, Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise), who has his own shady side. Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman) is the wise district judge who gets Ryan off lightly and later offers him a job at his budget-level beachfront bungalow colony.
Ryan is drawn to Nancy Hayes (Sara Foster), who turns out to be Ritchie’s mistress and more than a bit of a tease. She’s in residence at what Crewes calls Ritchie’s "pimp starter-castle up the beach." Ryan and Hayes, while in an extended flirtation, end up planning a heist together, but, rest assured, there will be twists, turns, and treachery from all sides. Smaller roles add to the complications, with Charlie Sheen as Ritchie’s gofer who has a case on Nancy, too, and the once again under-utilized Bebe Neuwirth as Ritchie’s not-too-bright, overdressed, over-liquored wife.
Indeed, the movie gets so wrapped up in the convolutions of its plot that characterization is left by the wayside. Only Ryan becomes more than a pawn in the narrative machinations, largely due to Wilson’s sly charm, but that’s just enough to sustain a lot more fun than the script itself might generate with, say, Ryan O’Neal. There are some funny zingers, but not enough for an 89 minute film (even that time frame has been heavily padded out with intercut scenic shots). The funniest line is delivered by veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton, briefly featured in a scene that also has Willie Nelson playing in a domino game. It won’t be spoiled here, but that the joke is in no way related to the context of the movie is a sure sign of attempted resuscitation for a film that is rapidly sinking into the surf.
Sara Foster is a knockout visually; she’s competent in her role, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to bring to it the interest or quirkiness missing in the script. Wilson (Shanghai Nights, The Royal Tenenbaums), on the other hand, with his crushed schnozzola and squinty eyes, conjures up a lovable petty thief, a good guy with a weakness for crime and a pretty girl, and a way with a clever line, when one is provided. With his deceptively easy-going manner, he provides the needed energy that keeps The Big Bounce bouncing.