“I’ve got a bomb,” Jamie Foxx shouts during the chaotic climax of “Bait.” He’s speaking, of course, in the character of Alvin Sanders, a small-time but soft-hearted criminal who’s not nearly as cool as he thinks, and who at the moment is trying to race a van filled with ticking explosives away from a crowd of potential victims. But the line might as well be spoken by Foxx himself to describe his latest cinematic vehicle. Even by the extremely low standards of today’s action comedies, Antoine Fuqua’s sophomore feature is staggeringly incoherent, illogical, and unfunny. The plot has to do with how fast-talking but persistently unsuccessful Alvin becomes the unwitting tool of U.S. Treasury agents, who implant a radio transmitter in his jaw and release him from prison in the hope that he’ll attract the notice of a master thief (the enigmatic Bristol, played by Doug Hutchison). Bristol, you see, has masterminded a huge gold heist from the government, but his confederate Jaster (Robert Pastorelli) got away with all the loot, only to be jailed on a DWI and put in a cell with our hero before conveniently expiring of a heart attack, which prevented his disclosing where he’d hidden the gold. The feds’ plan is surreptitiously to persuade Bristol, using all sorts of high-tech gadgetry, that Alvin knows where the loot is stashed, and then to free the unsuspecting con and tail him until Bristol can be captured trying to contact him. Needless to say, the agents prove decidedly inept, Bristol virtually omniscient, and Alvin far more complicated than expected, leading to many complications on the way to a bang-up showdown that occurs, for some unexplained reason, at a race track. A few bodies fall along the way, but don’t you just know that by the close Alvin and the chief Treasury agent, gruff Edgar Clenteen (David Morse), have developed a grudging respect for one another?
If you think that all this sounds like an obvious ripoff of “48 Hours” (1982), you’d be right, but the result isn’t nearly as good. Foxx is a deft comedian and a potentially charming leading man, but he seems definitely to need help choosing the right roles: he was stranded in the lame farce “Held Up” earlier this year, and though “Bait” is obviously a better-financed project, it’s even more dispiriting because it’s far more violent, as well as messier and more disjointed. Nor does the script employ Foxx’s wise-cracking persona well; some of his riffs offer sporadic laughs (improvised, perhaps), but mostly they’re pretty drab, and when the star is (inevitably) trussed up and tortured by the bad-guy, he seems uncomfortable in more ways than one. It’s a misuse of a considerable comic talent.
The rest of the cast is poorly used, too. David Morse, who’s done some splendid work in the past, is a one-note bore as the agent who tries to make Alvin his pawn, and David Paymer his typically smirky self as Edgar’s subordinate. (One of the main difficulties Morse and Paymer, as well as the lesser actors playing their government confederates, have is that for the most part they’re clustered in a room looking at computer screens and eavesdropping on radio conversations. Hasn’t it yet become abundantly clear to filmmakers that such sequences, however many “jokes” they’re laced with and however spiffy the equipment on display, are deadeningly dull?) Hutchison, who overacted the nasty Percy Wetmore alongside the more stoic Morse in “The Green Mile,” does a bargain-basement imitation of John Malkovich as Bristol. Kimberly Elise shows some spunk as Lisa, Alvin’s erstwhile girlfriend (and surprisingly to him, the mother of his child), with whom he reconnects after his release and who encourages him to go straight, but her part is clearly designed merely to provide some jeopardy at the end, and she can’t overcome its formulaic character. Mike Epps is more irritating than humorous as Alvin’s inept brother, and Robert Pastorelli, whom you might recall from “Murphy Brown,” seriously overdoes the gagging and chest-rubbing associated with the dying Jaster.
Ultimately, though, one shouldn’t blame the actors too much. The real villains here are scripters Andrew and Adam Scheinman and Tony Gilroy, who never managed to fashion the borrowed elements of their screenplay into a coherent whole, and director Fuqua, who, instead of trying to clarifying the plot strands, is merely intent on demonstrating a sense of visual pizzazz. As a result we get a lot of jumpy cuts and innumerable shots of the same blue-hued urban landscapes for which he showed such affection in his first film “The Replacement Killers”–enough, in fact, to drag out the movie to an unconscionable full two hours–but precious little sense of chronology or topography. (How long is Alvin supposed to have been in prison, anyway? And how does a horse-racing track show up in the middle of New York City?) Fuqua doesn’t even stage the action set-pieces competently: the car-chases and explosions are too closely shot and jerkily edited to engender much excitement. They provoke vertigo instead.
So though “Bait” might seem attractive on the surface, the prospective viewer is hereby warned not to bite.