From the looks of Bait, someone is trying to turn Jamie Foxx into the next Will Smith. That someone is not stupid—overambitious, maybe, but not stupid. Foxx has knife-edge cheekbones and a goofy, off-kilter smile, a comedic track record (with his eponymous WB sitcom), and an impressive out-of-the-blue star turn (as the brash innocent in Oliver Stone’s football 42nd Street, Any Given Sunday) behind him. Altogether, Foxx has the makings of another black Cary Grant, which seems to be the only kind Hollywood is creating nowadays.

But what Foxx doesn’t have is that electric charisma that zaps the audience where it sits—which is to say he’s no Will Smith. Foxx is, however, good enough for the likes of Bait, a crash-bam car-chase-o-rama that tries to balance its FBI-vs.-chilly-psycho plot with vaudevillian double takes and street-smart laugh lines. Foxx’s character, Alvin Sanders, is a cocky and amiable small-time crook whose bluster swings into submissiveness the moment he’s threatened. It’s a role that both Smith and Martin Lawrence could ace while sound asleep, and the film is the same breed of guns-ablazing, motor-mouthed action-comedy that arose seemingly in service of such stars.

Bait’s opening sequence contrasts two burglaries: A couple of white thieves enact a meticulously planned break-in of the “Federal Gold Reserve, Manhattan,” while over in Brooklyn, two brothers in knit caps trade quips and ready themselves to knock over a seafood warehouse. (It’s not mere shrimp they’re after, Alvin insists, trying to quell his brother’s reservations—it’s prawns.) Both heists go awry, but not before setting up the movie’s dual engines—serious action and limbs-akimbo yuks.

Busted in the act of prawn-boosting, Alvin is carted off to Rikers to room with one of the gold thieves, a softie with a tricky heart who entrusts Alvin with a clue as to where he buried the bars. The gold robbery’s mastermind, Bristol (The Green Mile’s Doug Hutchison), a chilly little psychopath with a computer bank that would make the NSA weep—and indeed it does during the course of the film—is still at large and wants his loot. That’s where Alvin comes in. Clenteen (David Morse), a U.S. Treasury investigator with a taste for roughing up his clients, sets the unwitting bait free with a locator chip planted in his neck and waits for Bristol to track him down.

Bait is a low-rent Enemy of the People, and all the more enjoyable for its reduced rate (and expectations). If it has a flaw, it’s in director Antoine Fuqua’s occasional inability to temper the grim intensity—too many serious moments try for dramatic profundity but just look silly. The script’s structure is too rickety to support Clenteen’s opening economy-size cans of whupass at every opportunity—who knew the Treasury was such a violent place?—and one would like to know exactly who this Bristol fellow is and how come his study looks like an ultra-top-secret room at the Pentagon. (His computers even talk to him in that sexy, somnambulistic voice from the old Star Treks.)

But Foxx is funny and charming, and for all Bait’s violence, it’s a cute show. When his girlfriend greets his surprise visit with a terse obscenity, the easygoing Alvin takes it as banter, then incredulously stumbles, “You mean ‘Fuck you’ fuck you?” Kimberly Elise is fine as the dubious girlfriend, calling Alvin’s stream of self-aggrandizing bluster “random gibberish”; meanwhile, back at the surveillance center, the Treasury team is continually exasperated by Alvin’s attempt to go straight—they spin in their ergonomic chairs and pinch their nose bridges a lot.

If the Academy gave out Oscars for stunt drivers, Bait would win an armful. (There’s a semi that spins for, like, six miles in busy Manhattan.) But action chops aren’t the only ones on display. Like Enemy of the People, only more so because there’s less obfuscating supertechnology to get in the way of the point, Bait scores street-level props for building a metaphor about a black man as a pawn in the white man’s complicated game, which he’s not allowed to understand and from which he isn’t expected to profit. When Alvin turns the tables on Clenteen and his team by becoming the kind of man they don’t expect a black man to become, the triumph is remarkably satisfying. Jamie Foxx may never become another Will Smith, but he’s doing all right just as he is.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie breathes new life into the recently ubiquitous genre of hard-as-nails-loser crime flick with The Way of the Gun, just as he did in his last screenplay, a little thing called The Usual Suspects. Narrated by the character calling himself Parker (Ryan Phillippe) in the strangled, prissy voice that is his only distinctive trait, The Way of the Gun offers such tough-guy gnomicisms as “Need is the ultimate monkey.” Parker is rambling through the Southwest looking for easy ways to access cash with his accomplice, Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro); the fact that they see themselves as doomed-romantic-outlaw heroes—to such an extent that they name themselves after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—tells much of the story.

The pair hear rumors of a very pregnant young woman expecting a million dollars from the wealthy couple whose child she’s surrogate-mothering and decide to kidnap her and hold the baby for ransom. They grab the girl, Robin (Juliette Lewis), from under the noses and massive firepower of her bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) and hustle her off to await the payoff.

But nothing is straightforward in this double-crossing twistfest, and everyone has secret motives and hush-hush alliances. For one thing, the hapless crooks discover that the girl’s sponsor is the El Jefe of local crookdom, who has the pull to hire a small army to blow their heads off. Then there are his conniving, needy trophy wife; a weak obstetrician with a shady past; and James Caan as the windbreaker-wearing bagman, sucking in his gut and talking in a hammy, dated, mannered tough-guy style.

McQuarrie is a master of nausea-hip, shooting in garish greens, browns, and yellows that add a sickly-looking cast to the entire enterprise but grant Lewis’ lumpy face a painterly grace. The film’s most fervid gunplay is enacted with low-key geniality, and the twists amble into the plot every few minutes like celebrity cameos, without gasps of self-congratulation to signal the director’s cleverness. McQuarrie also hosts a bizarre car chase in which the vehicles periodically slow down, the adversaries get out and blam away for a while, and then everyone gets back into the cars before doing it again. It’s funny, baffling, and so entirely new that at first you’re not sure what you’re looking at.

The Way of the Gun is specked with unlikely insights—gallows humor and glimpses of genuine emotion that throw the tough-guy posings into pathetic contrast—as well as motives that get no payoff and characters whose purpose is never defined. When Longbaugh sighs, “These days they want to be criminals more than they want to commit crimes,” he could be speaking for young Hollywood—the way to do that is, of course, to make tough, clever, poseur heist flicks. The way to do it right is to make ones like this.CP

See Mark Jenkins’ Talking Pictures interview with McQuarrie on Page 46