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THE MAN

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It’s rather amazing, and not a little sad, that Eugene Levy, who’s so amusing in Christopher Guest’s ensemble pieces, has been almost unbearable in lead roles. Perhaps it’s just a matter of too much of a good thing. But whatever the reason, Levy is no more successful in “The Man” than he was nearly twenty years ago when he co-starred with John Candy in “Armed and Dangerous.”

Of course, maybe it’s just that the script here is no better than the one for that terrible 1985 movie. What Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman and Stephen Carpenter have concocted is an example of a venerable genre, the mismatched-buddy action comedy, but one that’s produced more than its share of stinkers. The picture is less like “Midnight Run” or “48 Hrs.” than “Pure Luck.” Levy plays Andy Fidler, a preternaturally uptight salesman from Wisconsin who comes to Detroit to deliver a speech at a dental-supply convention, only to be sucked into a sting operation being conducted by gruff ATF agent Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson). Vann, the typical rogue lawman whose dirty partner has just been killed during a weapons robbery (of course), has arranged to meet incognito with the thieves as a prospective purchaser of the guns they stole. Unfortunately, Fidler is mistaken for him by the crooks, and so Vann compels the hapless guy to continue the imposture in order to close the case, get back the merchandise, and clear himself in an investigation being conducted by an internal affairs officer (Miguel Ferrer) who suspects that he was in on the heist, too.

Everything that flows from the lame initial premise is flat and predictable. The incompatible duo bicker their way through all sorts of adventures, with Levy doing his prissily precise shtick and Jackson embarrassing himself with a caricature of the tough cop, until they inevitably bond (in one mawkish aside, Fidler helps Vann reconnect with his estranged wife and neglected daughter). Some of Levy’s bits would actually be pretty funny in three-minute sketch doses, but when strung together his cartoonish act grows tiresome. And even someone as expert as Jackson can’t do anything with the one-note Vann; after all, what actor, however fine, could cope with the illogical role of a supposed undercover agent who, when confronted by some Detroit police, flashes his badge in the middle of traffic and loudly announces his federal status to the whole city at the very time he’s trying to fool the bad guys into thinking he and Fidler are fellow crooks? The sense of desperation becomes most evident, however, when the script resorts to the lowest forms of flatulence humor in a vain attempt to elicit laughs–a motif that demeans both the stars. But Levy and Jackson aren’t the only performers who fare badly because of the lame writing. Luke Goss is trapped in the cliche role of a Euro-villain, Ferrer harumphs and glowers his way through the stock part of the hard-nosed IA investigator, Susie Essman is typically stern as the lieutenant troubled by Vann’s recklessness, and SNL’s Horatio Sanz stumbles and mumbles as the evidence-room sergeant whom Vann regularly shames into giving him confiscated cash for his off-the-record undercover operations. But nobody comes off as badly as the talented Anthony Mackie, who’s reduced to doing a crude stereotype as Vann’s reluctant snitch, named–of all things–Booty and forced to snivel and whine every time the cop thrashes him to extract information.

Through everything the direction by Les Mayfield (“Encino Man”) is pallid at best, bringing little energy even to car chases and shootouts and often leaving the actors looking positively stranded. On the technical side the movie is equally mediocre, with the Motor City setting seeming a case of the yin and yang of the universe. Not long ago “Four Brothers” used actual Detroit locations beautifully to create a palpable sense of place; even the grim backgrounds were distinctive and cooly eye-catching. The city in “The Man” looks like everywhere and nowhere, a dull, anonymous place–which probably stems from the fact that the picture was actually shot in Toronto. But that’s only fair, because this is one dull and anonymous movie. The only really praiseworthy thing about it is that it’s also one of the year’s shortest–less than eighty minutes when one subtracts the final credits. It just seems much longer.

AGENT CODY BANKS 2: DESTINATION LONDON

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You might think Kevin Allen a most peculiar choice to preside over the sequel to last year’s junior-grade James Bond vehicle for “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz, and it turns out that you’d be right. The Welsh actor’s first directorial effort, 1997’s “Twin Town,” was an extraordinarily mean-spirited (and foul-mouthed) would-be comedy about hooligans and gangsters in West England. He mellowed in his second entry, “The Big Tease” (1999), about a flamboyant Scottish hairdresser’s trip to America. But neither picture suggested that Allen had the temperament to tackle a teen spy flick. And “Agent Cody Banks 2” proves that he doesn’t.

Perhaps it was the British setting of Don Rhymer’s script–the secondary title spells it out–that determined Allen’s selection. And he does, to be sure, seem in sync with the rather fey sense of humor that dominates here. In sequences that feature, for example, a whining fellow from whom one of the leads requisitions a moped, or a comically doddering butler, or an arrogant orchestra conductor, or a laughably officious cop, Allen choreographs things as though he were helming a low-class British sitcom for PBS consumption. (A scene involving a liquor-serving, piano-playing dog is even strange enough to have come out of “The Goon Show.”) But these moments seem positively weird in the context of a picture made for American kids. And in the segments that are the meat and potatoes of a “Cody Banks” movie, he’s utterly at a loss. The action set-pieces are pretty much a mess, not only chaotic but entirely too violent for this setting. And when Allen goes for straight slapstick, it’s even worse.

The person who suffers most from the ineptitude in the latter respect is Anthony Anderson, who takes on the role of Derek, the jive-talking CIA guy who becomes the handler for Cody (Muniz) when he’s assigned to track down a renegade agent named Diaz (Keith Allen, the director’s brother), who’s stolen some mind-control software and absconded with it to London, where he’s going to link up with a nasty British scientist (James Faulkner). In order to get close to the plotters, Cody poses as a clarinet prodigy who joins the international youth orchestra sponsored by the scientist’s wife (Anna Chancellor), while Derek enters the household in the guise of a cook to keep watch on him. In that capacity he wreaks havoc in the kitchen in sequences that are meant to be hilarious but look sloppily improvised.

Meanwhile Muniz goes through his superspy paces, breaking into buildings, dodging what appear to be mini-missiles and engaging in a couple of knock-down, drag-’em-out fights that are not only ineptly staged but far too realistic to be much fun. Though the gangly teen can still be charming, this time around the makers stumble badly in turning him into a cocky heroic type widely feted as the best in the business. Much of the enjoyment in the initial installment was that the kid was a nerdy guy whose enlistment as an agent seemed totally implausible; it was the contrast between his geeky personality (embodied in his utter ineptitude around girls) and the derring-do he engaged in, however haltingly, that gave the flick whatever modest amusement it possessed. But all of that has effectively been jettisoned this time around. Cody’s become nothing more than a precocious professional, and as such a much less interesting fellow. He’s not even given much to do in the romance department–a late-blooming connection with a flautist named Emily (Hannah Spearritt), who turns out to be just what you expect, doesn’t manage anything near to the relationship the character had with Hilary Duff’s damsel-in-distress in the earlier movie.

What that leaves us with are arch, unfunny villainy from Allen and Faulkner (the former is especially grating–a bad example of nepotism in casting), another snorting turn from Keith David as the CIA director, some thoroughly unfunny bits from Malcolm’s orchestral colleagues, and–most painful of all–a really dreadful finale featuring a bevy of bad actors impersonating an assortment of world leaders. (Query: why have the stand-ins for the British prime minister and the queen been chosen to look as much like Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth as possible, while the guy playing the U.S. president doesn’t remotely resemble Dubya Bush? Is it okay to ridicule foreign leaders but not ours?)

Even the English locations don’t make much of an impression here, nor do the second-rate special effects. This uninspired, maladroit entry should insure that “Cody” won’t be bankable for long, and that his days as a cinematic “Agent” are numbered.