Bad Company is an Everything Picture. It’s got action, comedy, and even a love interest. It’s got hip-hop Chris Rock, white-bread Anthony Hopkins, and window-dressing Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon. It’s an odd-couple buddy picture, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a shoot-em-up spy caper. It’s this summer’s would-be Rush Hour and Men in Black (though the original and returning Men in Black might beg to differ). Oh yes, and it’s topical: For the second weekend in a row (following The Sum of All Fears), terrorists smuggle a nuclear device into a major American city and try to blow it up.
Bad Company wants to be everything for everybody, and, while it’s not a lot of anything for anybody, it manages to be just enough of this and that not to be a total waste of time. Fitfully funny but never exciting or engaging, modestly entertaining but excessively dimwitted, and in the end just too darn long, Bad Company is, in a word, relentlessly average. Chris Rock’s one-liners and Anthony Hopkins’s dialed-back delivery are the reasons to see it, but the bad guys, the plot, and the action are dead on arrival.
The first hour works quite a bit better than the second hour, in part because there is a second hour. The setup: When CIA agent Kevin Pope (Rock) is murdered in the middle of an important undercover operation involving the black-market sale of a miniature thermonuclear device, Pope’s CIA mentor Gaylord Oakes (Hopkins) must convince the sellers that Pope (or rather his undercover persona) is still alive. To do this, Oakes must turn to — you guessed it — Pope’s long-lost twin brother.
Enter Jake Hayes (Rock), a fast-talking chess hustler and small-time ticket scalper trying to eke out a living that will allow him to marry his girlfriend Julie (Kerry Washington). "You know, poor people do get married," Jake plaintively tells Julie, and we realize with mild surprise that he actually loves her and wants to marry her — that he’s not just a walking libido in the way that, for example, Chris Tucker is in the Rush Hour movies.
Later in the film, Jake’s love for Julie is put to the test when his dead brother’s gorgeous girlfriend (Beauvais-Nilon), mistaking Jake for her boyfriend, practically falls into his lap, and soon afterward demonstrates a determined interest in that portion of his anatomy. This all-out temptation only makes Jake realize, not without wincing regret, what Julie really means to him: "I didn’t know till two minutes ago just how much I loved you," he babbles to her answering machine two minutes after discovering Beauvais-Nilon in his shower. In a movie of this sort, bits like this almost qualify as sweet. It hardly even matters that Jake later follows up a "wish" that comes true by quipping "I wish for Jennifer Lopez naked," since we know he doesn’t mean it. After all, he already turned down Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon naked.
In any case, Jake needs money in order to marry Julie, and the CIA needs Jake to impersonate Kevin. After an amusing negotiation scene (long since spoiled in the trailers), Jake begins a nine-day induction into CIA life that is equal parts torture and rapture. Like Eddie Murphy being swept up into Dan Ackroyd’s world in Trading Places, Jake is staggered by his lavish new surroundings ("So, if I paid taxes — this is where the money would go!"), but finds the discipline almost more than he can bear.
These scenes pay off in some funny ways, though Oakes and company seem to spend all their time teaching Jake skills (such as speaking Czech and commenting knowledgeably on wine and vodka) that turn out to play no role whatsoever in his mission. Meanwhile, Jake’s one skill that does turn out to play a crucial role in the climactic scene is never hinted at beforehand, though it would have been easy to do so and would have given the climax some modicum of interest.
Despite his class training, Rock makes virtually no effort to modify Jake’s behavior when he’s meant to be impersonating Kevin; yet no one realizes he’s an imposter. (Only Kevin’s girlfriend spots the deception — but after a brief attempt to kiss Jake, not from his behavior.) In one scene, Jake chats up a wealthy neighbor of Kevin’s who invites him to appraise her latest acquisition; Jake tries to be smooth in admiring what turns out to be a vase, but when she tells him what she paid for it, he blurts disbelievingly, "$150,000?! Good Lord, what you gonna put in it, cocaine?"
Like his raw trainee, Oakes is more decent than you might expect. He wants to deal squarely with Jake, but his superiors insist Jake be kept in the dark about the dangers of the mission — something Oakes admits frankly was a mistake. In the end, his appeal to Jake is not financial, but moral: "This may sound corny, but I truly believe that this is bigger than either of us." Jake doesn’t immediately respond to this, but later on there’s a showcase moment in which Jake elaborately dresses down Oakes’s superior, challenging him, "Did it ever occur to you that I might be doing this because it’s the right thing?"
Some critics have complained about the lack of chemistry between Hopkins and Rock. For me, the lack of chemistry is precisely what I like about their relationship. They don’t have become buddies in the penultimate reel in order to work together to save the world. A kind of grudging affection grows between them, but nothing remotely like a real friendship. That’s as it should be. Oakes’s final line to Jake sums up their relationship perfectly.
Hopkins and Rock carry the film as far as they can, but it’s not far enough. In the end this story comes down to a race against a digital countdown on a bomb, and that’s a tired way even to open an action movie, let alone to end one. The gunfights and car chases are utterly devoid of interest, and in the whole film I can recall only one stunt (involving a hotel laundry chute) of any distinction whatsoever.
Bad Company could have been a better action story. All it needed was better action, and a better story.
P.S. Why does the movie open with a religious procession, and stage a major firefight in an abandoned monastery? Your guess is as good as mine.
Wilson, a capable comic force in his own right, gets laughs too, but for the most part he’s content to play the laid-back straight man setting up Murphy’s punchlines. There’s an early scene in which, discussing their working relationship, Wilson uses a Harlem Globetrotters analogy to argue that he, the professional spy, should be team leader Meadowlark Lemon, and Murphy, a boxing champ, should be Fred "Curly" Neal, Meadowlark’s sidekick. Murphy, of course, ridicules this suggestion; and, whatever the ultimate relationship of their characters, which of the actors is Meadowlark and which is Curly is never in dispute.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.