It’s a tricky proposition to transfer the quirkiness that informs Elmore Leonard’s writing–the sometimes unsettling, often delightful mixture of hard-boiled action and skewered comedy–onto the screen. When the operation is performed with skill and style, the result can be charmingly offbeat (“Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight”). But if it’s fumbled, the outcome can be painful. The first attempt to film “The Big Bounce,” Leonard’s first non-western, definitely fell into the latter category. The 1969 film was clumsily adapted and slackly directed (by Alex March, who ordinarily worked in series television), and was saddled with a cast (Ryan O’Neal, Leigh Taylor-Young, Van Heflin, Robert Webber) that couldn’t have handled the humorous side of the story even had there been an effort to capture it. The picture was like a dismal updating of a particularly bad forties film noir.
There’s nothing basically wrong with taking another whack at it, therefore, and George Armitage would seem a fellow likely to pull it off the second time around. After all, though he’s hardly a prolific director, he did manage to work wonders with Charles Willeford’s pulpish “Miami Blues” in 1990–he adapted the book extremely well, retaining its combination of violence and laughs, and drew career-high performances from his leads (Alec Baldwin hasn’t matched his maniacal turn in it until his recent character parts). And he did a great job with John Cusack’s “Grosse Pointe Blank” in 1997 (written by Tom Jankiewicz in a style not unlike Leonard’s).
In the event, however, “The Big Bounce” redux proves to be a case of “So what?” The convoluted tale of Jack Ryan, a petty crook and drifter whom a femme fatale draws into a plot to steal a bundle from the powerful fellow keeping her as his mistress, is treated much more faithfully this time around (though there are significant alterations and omissions in Sebastian Gutierrez’s screenplay), but the treatment is so bland and laid-back that the movie strolls when it should sprint. And when it reaches its big conclusion, the exposition is so muddled and arbitrary that it’s barely possible to discern exactly what’s going on. (To be honest, Leonard’s denouement was always weak, but the off-the-cuff way it’s played here accentuates the problem.)
A good deal of the difficulty stems from the lead turn by Owen Wilson as Ryan, here characterized as a glib slacker type wandering about the beaches of Oahu to catch some waves while pausing occasionally to get some bucks by working odd jobs or stealing a bit when an opportunity arises. He’s a small-timer in every respect, good-natured and unsurprised at other people’s chicanery, and Wilson plays him with an affable surfer-dude nonchalance that’s engaging but never compelling. He also tosses off the slightly smarmy lines he’s been given with a lightheartedness that’s quite agreeable. But over the course of ninety minutes his performance comes to seem little more than the sort of sideshow routine that members of the Rat Pack used to deliver while winking at the audience, and it ultimately enervates the movie. As the vixen who entices him into her schemes, model Sara Foster exhibits more energy, as well as a drop-dead physique, but she manages to generate neither the sultriness the role demands nor much chemistry with Wilson, or with either Gary Sinise or Charlie Sheen, who play her nasty employer and his dopey underling respectively (and seem decidedly uncomfortable in those roles). Morgan Freeman brings his customary air of casual authority to the part of the judge/hotelier who hires Ryan to do odd jobs in his string of beachfront bungalows, but he appears to be phoning things in here. On the other hand, Vinnie Jones is much too aggressive as a foreman with whom Ryan has a disagreement, and Bebe Neuwirth is stridently unfunny as Sinise’s badly-used wife. Harry Dean Stanton and Willie Nelson show up in pointless cameos as Freeman’s grizzled, domino-playing buddies; presumably a free ticket to Hawaii was a sufficient inducement to secure their appearances. The gorgeous scenery, unfortunately, isn’t well used in the film. Jeffrey L. Kimball’s cinematography has a watery, bleached-out look, and the compositions are never better than mundane; the habit of cutting periodically to singers in native garb greeting visitors from the mainland or Wilson surfing is irritating, too. George S. Clinton contributes a bouncy score that tries to tell us how enjoyable what we’re watching is–to little effect.
Ultimately this second version of “The Big Bounce,” while more bearable than its misguided predecessor, is a lethargic movie that lopes and stumbles far more often than it springs to life. Despite the title, this is a deflated cinematic ball that never takes flight.