Do the right thing

Upright urban attitude confronts nefarious global espionage.

BAD COMPANY

directed by Joel Schumacher with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins opens June 7 at Meridian, Metro, Bella Bottega, and others

HOW DO WE tell the bad guys from the good guys in the new wave of post-Cold War spy movies? Everyone's got the same cell phones, laptops, and fashion sense. International travel and multimillion- dollar wire transfers are a breeze for both crews. Between shoot-outs, car chases, and tense confrontations, they probably frequent the same spas—working on their tans, pedicures, and photogenic stubble in adjoining bungalows.

This confusion is heightened in Bad Company by the hoary cinematic device of twins. Chris Rock plays both the Ivy League-educated CIA agent Kevin and his N.Y.C. chess-hustling, ticket-scalping brother, Jake, who were separated at birth. Kevin's early, noble death requires his colleague, Oakes (Anthony Hopkins), to enlist Jake to impersonate Kevin in order to retrieve a nuclear suitcase bomb from Eastern European bad guys.

An underachiever with a heart of gold, Jake agrees to the nine-day mission, lured by the $100,000 fee that might help him regain his estranged, impatient girlfriend (Kerry Washington, Our Song). Jake then undergoes a Bondian makeover at the CIA charm school. Once he's learned to select a good cognac and speak rudimentary Czech, he's jetted off to Prague—room service!--to wait for the evil Russian baddies to call.

Just one problem—crazed Serbian terrorists are trying to kill Jake (unaware that they succeeded with his twin). Once the bullets start flying, Jake's understandably upset that the CIA is callously using him as an expendable pawn. Given his mistreatment from both sides, regular-guy Jake is pointedly the odd man out here, but the film never convinces us why he sides with the uptight CIA. He simply goes along with the dangerous ruse because movie logic demands it. Moreover, his supposed verve and jive are too swiftly subordinated to dull patriotic purpose. From street to suite, Jake remains a surprisingly square figure.

CAST IN SUCH a generic Trading Places and Pygmalion-style vehicle, Rock mines a few laughs by regularly breaking character from his assigned 007-like persona, degenerating into a squealing coward whenever danger appears. Company is a comedy, of course, and this places Rock in the tradition of Bob Hope or Woody Allen in the spy romps of old—yet Rock's strength as a sharp-witted comic is lost in the shtick. Aside from the stray joke about police brutality, he can't get outside the fish-out-of-water/mismatched buddy film formula.

48 Hours is another obvious influence here, yet Rock hardly gets the chance to tell off his law enforcement masters (aside from the obligatory tongue-lashing of Oakes' mean boss, who exists solely for that purpose). Deviating from the Exeter and Dartmouth dossier he's been given, he'll occasionally direct a zinger at the camera, but even these quips feel canned. Thus when Jake surveys Prague, where most of Company takes place, he scoffs, "Looks like Newark."

Newark? You can almost hear the exasperated sigh on the other side of the camera from epicurean Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever), who capably photographs Prague's scenic cobblestoned alleys, bridges, and architecture without attempting to enliven Company's clich餠script and characters. (Hopkins remains a cipher, reduced to three props: gun, toothpick, and Harvard baseball cap.) No Frankenheimer when it comes to action scenes, Schumacher's big dramatic moments are actually locations: Jake exploring his brother's fabulous N.Y.C. apartment; a four-star hotel in Prague; an abandoned monastery for yet another inept showdown/shoot-out sequence set to terrible synth music.

Arriving amidst a crop of mediocre spy movies (Spy Games, The Sum of All Fears), Company inadvertently demonstrates how espionage parody (Undercover Brother, Austin Powers) may be the only way to go after the Cold War. Jake gets a few spy gadgets, but they're not any fun. Meanwhile, Schumacher endlessly clutters his frames with video and computer screens as the CIA monitors Jake's training and mission. When the suitcase nuke finds its way to N.Y.C., Oakes and Jake must naturally defuse it. There aren't any colored wires to snip, but at least we have a red LED clock counting down (which Sum oddly omitted).

Here's where the white hats and black hats are finally distinguishable. Some hate-filled Serb spouts vitriol—"You take sides in conflicts you know nothing about!"—and gets shot for such troubling words. Yet his brief tirade makes him the most interesting character in the film, because he actually has opinions. Bringing this terrorist to Manhattan doesn't make Company topical; ignoring what he says does.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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