Style once again wins hands-down over MIA substance in “Bait,” music vid/commercial director Antoine Fuqua’s second feature, following last year’s similarly sharp-looking empty package “The Replacement Killers.” Toplining Jamie Foxx as a petty serial offender unknowingly used to hunt down a high-tech criminal mastermind, seriocomic actioner is mindlessly diverting popcorn fare that’s deleted from the viewer’s hard-drive before final credit crawl. Warner Bros. release from Castle Rock will probably follow suit, posting solid midrange numbers for a couple weeks before dropping out of sight; brisk ancillary biz should compensate for so-so returns in territories where Foxx has yet to establish a B.O. identity.
Fuqua definitely has what it takes to jazz up a hackneyed script. Transcending it, however, is another matter. Despite all “Bait’s” kinetic oomph, there’s nary a moment here where emotional engagement blots out the formula contrivances of the scenario by Andrew and Adam Scheinman and Tony Gilroy. Like so many recent features, “Bait” is a B movie in A-grade clothing.
After a well-designed opening credit seg, powered by Mark Mancina’s excellent score (that mixes electronica and orchestral sounds here, and later adds jazz, hip-hop and Lalo Schifrin-esque soul to the mix), kickoff sequence intercuts between two very different Manhattan robberies.
The big deal is theft of $42 million in gold bricks from a Federal Reserve, orchestrated despite seemingly impenetrable security by hacker supreme Bristol (Doug Hutchison). His partner, John Jaster (Robert Pastorelli), rebels — and narrowly escapes with the booty — when Bristol needlessly kills the two guards they’ve already bound and gagged.
Meanwhile, on the small-potatoes front, none-too-bright Alvin Sanders (Foxx) has dragged reluctant brother Stevie (Mike Epps) along for a restaurant break-in — risking (and getting) yet another stint behind bars simply because he craves prawns.
Ending up at Riker’s Island, Alvin shares a cell with Jaster, whose dicey heart condition claims his life before the authorities can extract a full confession — but not before he’s given Alvin a cryptic message to pass along to his wife. (He dies unaware that Bristol has already murdered said spouse.)
Uncertain what the message means, yet gleaning that it may lead to hidden riches, Alvin keeps mum despite the rough interrogation tactics of U.S. Treasury investigator Clenteen (David Morse).
Eighteen months later, Clenteen has a plan. Knocked out in a set-up prison yard fight, Alvin is implanted without his knowledge with an apparatus that enables the government’s tech-savviest personnel to overhear and trace his every move. Clenteen figures that still-at-large Bristol will duly hunt down this stooge, then lead them to the stolen millions.
This duly comes to pass, but as Bristol closes in, Alvin is creating more than enough problems for himself and the investigators. Discovering he’s fathered an infant son with irate ex-girlfriend Lisa (Kimberly Elise), he makes an earnest effort to walk the straight and narrow.
But Stevie is still trafficking in stolen goods, and the brothers are erroneously blamed as informants when they miss an assignation where theft-ring leaders Ramundo (Kirk Acevedo), Julio (Jeffrey Donovan) and myriad suppliers are busted en masse by the NYPD. Clenteen & Co. have their hands full just keeping Alvin alive long enough for Bristol to get hold of him.
Fleetly paced pic piles on lesser crises — with a few syrupy time-outs for Alvin to baby-bond and reveal his own wounded inner child — until protag, g.f. and child predictably find themselves at the ruthless killer’s mercy.
Overblown, attenuated racetrack-set climax ticks seconds toward a time bomb that could kill 5,000 patrons. Fighting off Bristol to save his kin, Alvin at one ludicrous point finds himself galloping headlong into a melee of panicked competing jockeys and equines. A feel-good coda is nearly as silly.
As credibility gaps become chasms, “Bait” abandons any hope of genuine suspense, let alone character or emotional depth; Fuqua’s action set-pieces are impressively assembled, but so flashy and improbable they’re more eye candy than nail-biting stuff.
Given a decent premise, the script and the helmer might have created situations ingenious enough to fully exploit Alvin’s oblivious pursuit by three different camps. But apart from some isolated yucks, Fuqua opts for a dead-serious tenor that works stylistically yet leaves the careless, far-fetched narrative mechanics sorely exposed.
Foxx (“Booty Call,” “Any Given Sunday,” his eponymous WB Network sitcom) has yet to find a starring bigscreen vehicle custom fit for his considerable comic range and potential dramatic appeal.
Alvin is just a generic bozo-in-the-middle, and having an African-American thesp play this kind of dithering, scaredy-cat fool — albeit one who abruptly turns into Mr. Man of Righteous Action when convenient at the 11th hour — strikes a queasy retro note despite rising star’s agreeable presence.
Similarly, something old is not made new again in Hutchison’s diabolic-by-numbers Bristol, who’s presented as a thickly bespectacled computer nerd/gay/sicko combo.
Less tastelessly if no more imaginatively drawn are Morse’s humorless, all-business chief Fed, Elise’s wary g.f., Epps’ clueless brother, plus David Paymer, Jamie Kennedy, Nestor Serrano and Megan Dodds as Clenteen’s staff, who sit in a high-gloss computer cave reacting to Foxx’s latest hijinks. Acevedo and Donovan eke a few funny riffs from their too-briefly-seen criminal duo.
Largely shot in Toronto (aside from the required aerial and famous building shots), pic avoids needing a more tangible NYC feel by design, literally and otherwise. Tobias Schleisser’s widescreen lensing, Peter Jamison’s production design and Delphine White’s costumes create a nocturnal, dreamy Manhattan landscape that’s all chrome, black and midnight blue.
Alan Edward Bell’s nimble editing further abets this meticulously polished visual presentation; Mancina’s score is a major asset throughout, with well-chosen hip-hop tracks filling out the highly marketable soundtrack.