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“Why do you doubt your senses?” Marley’s ghost asked Scrooge, reasonably enough.
If a movie co-stars box-office strychnine Adam Sandler and B-list comedy-action guy Damon Wayans as a cop and a con man on the run from both sides of the law, sensible people will assume it sucks. If said movie is directed by Ernest Dickerson, whose achievements in cinematography are in inverse relation to his directorial efforts, most folks would be well advised to ignore it.
But Bulletproof is a surprise for which assumptions don’t prepare you: It’s funny. So sue me. It deserves to become something of a sleeper hit, a mini–Speed (only well-directed). Say enough people are forced to find someplace to take their 14-year-old nephews for the afternoon—word just might get around.
Because Bulletproof is two hours of comedic action aimed directly at 14-year-olds; it’s also sensitive, knowing, and has a nice, clear way of being slightly more complex than most buddy shoot-’em-ups. Sandler (who, face it, had nowhere to go but up) plays Archie Moses, a petty con man and dim-but-good guy who inveigles his best friend and partner in small-time crime, Rock Keats (Wayans), into taking advantage of the big bucks to be had clerking for a drug mogul.
But Keats is actually an undercover cop; he’s been waiting for this chance ever since he befriended Moses, on the force’s orders, a year ago. Bringing down Colton (James Caan, doing a respectable, if lazy, impersonation of Los Angeles personality Cal Worthington, who might want to sue) will cover him with police department glory, but he botches the job, exposing himself as a cop, letting the car-dealer/heroin czar get away, and earning an accidental bullet in the head from stunned ex-pal Archie. And he had really started to like his sweet, totally loyal pretend-friend. But a metal plate in one’s head can sour a friendship—like a genie too long in the bottle, Keats comes to hate Archie with a passion. By the time he’s ready to return to the force, he wants payback.
So the two are thrown together in bizarre circumstances with complicated motivations on each side: Archie agrees to turn state’s evidence only if Keats brings him in, so the two start their trek across the country, Archie in handcuffs and leg irons repeatedly asking, “How could you do this to me?,” and Keats with pursed-up I-ain’t-talking-to-you features. To keep the plot aboil, they stray into comedic territory—a strange motel run by a strange man in the middle of the desert—where the Colton empire, the police, and the FBI are after them for various reasons.
The interaction between the two men is priceless; their friendship—its betrayal, its limits, the possibility of rebuilding it—is at the heart of the movie. Archie whines incessantly about Keats’ treason; like a betrayed lover, he just wants to know why, but he also wants an outlet for his consuming bitterness. He is unable to pass up an opportunity—whether it’s lunch, a plot twist, or a conversational pause—to mention friend-betraying, people-using, phony, lying jerks in general; the number of ways he can ascribe “devil” attributes to Keats’ girlfriend is astounding.
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Combined with his easygoing manner and high level of self-awareness, Archie’s hurt reaches a pitch that feels genuine—it wasn’t the success of the crime that interested him, or having enough money to pay for the incidentals of his crummy life, but “The Rock and Archie Show,” which got a toast every night after a successful gig. He indulges in a sting-free but highly ridiculous variety of sexual descriptions of their friendship, which demonstrate how precisely he has calibrated that relationship’s limits: He can embarrass his friend without embarrassing himself.
Bulletproof, for all its gunplay and expertly shot car chases, is about loyalty and betrayal—“trust” is an intangible that both cops and robbers are forced to cling to, and characters switch allegiances and switch back, until the dizzying rondelet becomes too much for our heroes. Everyone, it seems, is in this deal for what he can get out of it, and the two fugitives end up not only hunted and confused, but disgusted. In the end, they find they were right all along: For them, the Rock and Archie Show is the only game in town.
Just because actor-of-the-evening Gerard Depardieu will appear in anything doesn’t mean he is without basic facility. Like his British counterpart, Michael Caine, the able Frenchman takes on roles for which he is ill-suited and manages to execute them with some finesse and often with conviction. But one wonders what he thinks he’s doing—a household name in Europe and national treasure in France, he musn’t imagine that playing underwritten characters in would-be wacky American films will put him over the top stateside. And it can’t be the money; no one needs money badly enough to co-star with Andie MacDowell in Green Card.
The irony is that Norman Jewison’s drab kiddie flick, Bogus, doesn’t need Depardieu. In the central triangle of relationships—angry newly orphaned boy, child-resistant godmother, magical spirit who teaches them both how to love—three’s a crowd. In classic tales of this sort—and they’re never as heartwarming as they claim to be—there can be only one spirit per lonely child or adult who forgot how to dream, or the unexpected child must soften up the grown-up, or the zany not-quite-relative shows the grumpy kid there’s more to life than daily peanut-butter sandwiches and unconditional love.
But Bogus is problematic from the start. Little Albert (Haley Joel Osment) lives in Las Vegas with his mother (Nancy Travis) and an extended pseudo-family of the magicians, acrobats, and other circus performers Mom works with. As in most movie depictions of life on the fringes of the performing arts, this crew, in heavy freak makeup, specializing in an art not entirely respectable, is really just a bunch of warm fuzzies who adore little Albert. One day Mom is hit by a truck and dies.
Be aware that this movie doesn’t open with the funeral scene; we get a good long look at Albert’s ideal existence—his magic life in a magic city surrounded by people who practice magic—before the horrible accident, which we also witness. If there’s a mom’s-hideous-sudden-death-appropriate age group I’m not sure what it is, and there can’t be too many preteen Depardieu fans (or if there are, they’re pretentious little snots out renting Danton), so who on earth is this thing for? It might have passed muster as a TV movie, where such anomalous life lessons crop up like harmless spores.
Young Albert is sent to Newark, accurately filmed to look like the ugliest place in America, where Mom’s foster sister from an orphan childhood is waiting, none too happily, to take him in. Harriet (Whoopi Goldberg, faxing in her performance possibly from Caan’s machine) is in the dreary restaurant-supply business, has no social life, and doesn’t think much of children. We’re to understand that Harriet is one of those no-fun grown-ups and is therefore ripe for the kind of nauseating conversion from frumpy to frolicsome these situations engender.
Inevitably, along comes a booming life force to put grieving, resentful kid and starchy old adult in their place, in the room-filling person of Depardieu. His Bogus functions as Albert’s inner adult, feeding him lines that present a veneer of politeness to his new guardian, advising him on diet (“Fish cakes? Ah, non”) and ordering him not to run away. In other words, he does everything real-adult Harriet would do if only she said it nicely and Albert would listen to her. As for Harriet, she softens enough to to hear Bogus’ voice, and then to see him, finally Fred-and-Gingering with the imaginary friend in a rather grotesque fantasy sequence.
Fantasy sequences pepper the plot but obscure its point—Albert must find magic in his depressing new home, but the candy-colored world he dreams of in his memories makes that gap look unspannable. The final scene, in which Harriet and Albert romp in the park, Bogus-free, hardly indicates that he’s found it. The weapons they play-fight with are imaginary, the park is in the middle of a noisy, gray city, and the kids at school still think he’s weird. So the 7-year-old’s big lesson is that sometimes you have to settle for a crummy, third-rate version of what you had. Thanks for the lollipop, Mr. Jewison; does it come in any flavors besides liver?CP