One might think that Hollywood types would have learned from a long string of disasters how unwise it is to try to make an English-language version of a French comedy. Just think of such horrors as “Mixed Nuts,” “Pure Luck,” “Jungle 2 Jungle,” “The Man With One Red Shoe,” “My Father the Hero,” “Just Visiting”–the list seems endless, and yet they continue to come. The latest example is this dismal reworking of Luc Besson’s 1998 original, which was so successful at home that it even spawned a sequel. This new “Taxi”–not to be confused with the old TV series, which was far superior–is an action comedy in which the action is negligible and the comedy nonexistent. It’s a strained buddy farce in which Jimmy Fallon plays Washburn, an inept NYC policeman of the brain-dead Stiller-Wilson “Starsky and Hutch” mode. After being taken off car duty by his predictably volatile lieutenant (Jennifer Esposito)–for whom he also carries a one-sided torch–because of his rotten driving, Washburn enlists a newly-hatched cabbie named Belle (Queen Latifah) to take him to the scene of a bank robbery and pursue the bandits–a bunch of Brazilian babes, no less!–after they make their escape. Fortunately Belle is a speed demon–as her introductory scenes as a bike messenger prove–and her souped-up car is a match for the villains, but Washburn’s klutziness dooms their chances. The poor sap is understandably dumped from the case immediately on order of by-the-book FBI agent Mullins (Christopher Kane, whom you might recall in happier times on “Angel”), but he persuades Belle to join him in tracking down the criminals by promising to get back her hack–which has been impounded as evidence–in return. More misadventures follow, of course–none of them either exciting or even remotely amusing, with a “solution” to the crime that’s about as banal as a scriptwriter could dream up. Some involve Washburn’s amiably dipsomaniac mother (a slumming Ann-Margret) and Belle’s handsome boyfriend Jesse (“NYPD Blue” veteran Henry Simmons, giving the part much more dignity than it deserves), who’s none too understanding about her inability to make it on time for his planned proposal.
It’s possible, one supposes, that a funny comedy about bumbling cops could actually be made, though the evidence is against it–unless memory fails, there hasn’t been one since Toody and Muldoon appeared on the small screen and Inspector Clouseau on the big one. (“Police Academy” or “White Chicks,” anyone?) This certainly isn’t it. Both as farce and as buddy-adventure, “Taxi” is as flat as a tire that’s been riddled with nails. Fallon does a lot of the same sort of shtick that was his speciality on “Saturday Night Live,” but the boyishly goofy stuff that worked in small doses on the tube becomes excruciating when dragged out over a hundred minutes. (One could describe him most accurately as an untalented cut-rate imitation of Buster Keaton.) He should never have left his weekend update gig, as is proven beyond all doubt when, after the movie has mercifully ended, a bevy of out-takes are included over the final crawls–demonstrating conclusively that his improvisational skills are inferior even to his ability to play what’s on the page. As his reluctant companion Queen Latifah is her usual smug, abrasive self, and anyone who enjoyed that persona when it was deployed against Steve Martin in “Bringing Down the House” might find it amusing this time around, too. In fairness, though, one must note her contribution to the movie’s one big special-effects moment–not any of the chases, which are all by-the-numbers stuff, but the opening credits sequence, when we watch a bike messenger speeding through the streets of New York, doing all sorts of amazing stunts. The rider pulls into the garage and jumps off the bike, and damned if it isn’t her! The amazing thing about the scene is the instantaneous weight gain: the masked figure whisking down the street seems to be maybe 120 pounds, but suddenly off the bike she’s become–shall we say–considerably more ample. Director Tim Story’s handling of this amazing transformation is on a par with his work throughout–which is to say it’s fumbling and unfocused. Nobody else on the crew distinguish themselves, either: technically the picture is barely adequate. There’s a certain justice to the focus of “Taxi” on so inept and bumbling a fellow as Fallon’s Detective Washburn. The movie seems to have been made by people exactly like him.
One could go on at length about the bad behabvior this movie glorifies, from the most offensive sort of driving to impersonations that verge on racial insult and chortling over what’s obviously alcoholism. But that hardly seems necessary when you can simply dismiss “Taxi” as an awful picture and leave it at that.