Grade: D+

The unfortunate title of this Jerry Bruckheimer-Joel Schumacher action-comedy is surely going to invite a steady stream of critical brickbats concentrating on the adjective it employs; and that will be entirely fitting, because “Bad Company,” though made with the highly polished sheen for which both producer and director are famous, is a pretty lousy movie, filled with mindless chase sequences and crummy verbal riffs. But what’s really appalling isn’t the fact that the movie is poorly written and ineptly, though slickly, staged; it’s that in our newly-changed world, it’s nothing more than a cruddy throwback to the days when terrorism was regularly used as a cheap plot device in pictures that were just silly exercises in dumb jokes and testosterone. Everything in it seems recycled from earlier movies that weren’t much good to begin with but were at least better than this, and weren’t quite so untimely. A recent film like “The Sum of All Fears,” for instance, depicts a nuclear explosion in Baltimore, but it has a serious issue on its mind, however ineffectually it might have been dramatized. But though it’s a story that concludes with threat of an atomic device being detonated in New York, of all places, “Bad Company” proves merely a succession of stupid cliches that were old hat long ago; and to resurrect them under the present circumstances seems not just insensitive but fundamentally unsavory. (When one character blithely comments on how easy it is to transport dangerous stuff into the country via air freight, for instance, it’s a very tasteless moment.) The good news is that we’ll probably have to endure few, if any, movies like it in the future. The bad news is that this one is in theatres now, and knowing that it began shooting back in the spring of 2001 isn’t sufficient consolation for the fact.

Jason Richman and Michael Browning’s script starts with a ridiculously contrived premise. An undercover CIA agent, Kevin Pope (Chris Rock), who–in the guise of cultivated antique seller Michael Turner–has arranged the purchase of a stolen Russian nuke from a slimy black-market arms dealer named Vas (Peter Stormare), is assassinated before the deal can be completed. Unless the agency can finish the transaction, Vas will sell the item to the alternate buyer (and Pope’s killer) Dragan Adjanic (Matthew Marsh), a loathsome Ratko Mladic surrogate who leads a terrorist Serbian organization called the Black Hand and intends to use the device against the U.S.–and since Vas trusts only Pope/Turner, the situation looks grim. (Choosing to call Adjanic’s group by the name of the organization whose violent acts actually precipitated World War I is fairly distasteful, too.) But by one of those fortuitous twists that occur only in junky movies, Kevin’s partner, the stern but dedicated Gaylord Oakes (Anthony Hopkins), discovers that Pope had a hitherto unknown twin brother–Jake Hayes (also Rock), a street-smart NYC fellow who makes a living by scalping tickets to sporting events and hustling players in games of speed-chess in Central Park. Oakes thereupon bribes Hayes to impersonate Pope in order to complete the sale–a plan that predictably involves forced humor as the jive-talking has to be trained to play the debonair, well-educated dead man and lots of chases, fights and gun battles after the CIA team goes to Prague for the buy. Needless to say, women are also inserted into the plot: not only a distaff agent (Brooke Smith) who’s obviously hot for Oakes–something that the fast-talking Hayes repeatedly notices–but also a luscious CNN reporter (Garcelle Beauvais- Nilon) who was chummy with Pope/Turner and surprises Hayes in a Czech hotel room, as well as Hayes’ own New York squeeze Julie (Kerry Washington), who of course becomes the obligatory damsel-in-distress in the big, supposedly tension-filled finale.

As is clear, “Bad Company” is exceedingly complex but nonetheless feels distinctly undernourished. Both of the major plot elements are pathetically hackneyed. On the one hand, all the spy material feels like stuff we’ve seen innumerable times before–and in order to stretch it out to feature length, episode after episode has to highlight the utter ineptitude of the CIA operatives to allow for yet another pursuit, shooting spree or frantic search. (The agency may in fact be as incompetent as the script indicates, as recent news disclosures suggests, but at the moment that’s hardly a reassuring dramatic point.) At the same time, the comedy interludes are never sharp or imaginative enough to provide much relief from the dramatic doldrums. Basically familiar Chris Rock-style riffs are simply dropped into the picture from time to time–a device which, given the comic’s inclination to overplay broadly and shout out his lines, not only undercuts the plausibility of the imposture Hayes is supposed to be undertaking, but comes across as tired and predictable. To add to the woes, no real chemistry develops between Rock and Hopkins. The latter employs his voice expertly, as usual, but he seems curiously stilted most of the time, and having him run around wielding a gun while wearing a baseball cap seems rather a waste of talent. This is simply no role for a great actor. Of the other cast members none really stand out apart from Stormare, though in his case it’s for all the wrong reasons: his lip-smacking villainous turn wouldn’t have been out-of-place in the “Die Hard” franchise. It is nice to see Irma P. Hall again as Hayes’ foster-mother, though the part is a walking cliche.

As is customary with all product deriving from either Bruckheimer or Schumacher, “Bad Company” has a slick, professional look, and Prague appears as colorful and lovely an old-world locale as it ordinarily does in movies. But even the technical appurtenances here–Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, Trever Rabin’s score, Mark Goldblatt’s editing–never go beyond simple competence. And since the script falls considerably below that, the net result doesn’t even reach mediocrity. Any movie in which a bomb plays so prominent a part has no business being such a dud.