Boilerplate crime comedy is the coin of the realm in "All About the Benjamins," which amiably replays the now-familiar formula of unlikely partners in thievery, all with the underlying hope that the Ice Cube-Mike Epps pairing is the start of a beautiful franchise.

This review was corrected on Apr. 24, 2002.

Boilerplate crime comedy is the coin of the realm in “All About the Benjamins,” which amiably replays the now-familiar formula of unlikely partners in thievery, all with the underlying hope that the Ice Cube-Mike Epps pairing is the start of a beautiful franchise. Veteran vid director Kevin Bray shows early signs in his debut feature that he’s going to toy with every action movie effect within reach, but then calms down and keeps his caper comedy on reasonably sound footing. Cube, who is building a cottage industry of his own with distrib New Line, calmly plays straight man to Epps’ riffing fool, whose antics provide extremely mixed results for pic’s laugh quotient. Cube knows his aud, and delivers just what they expect, which means the Benjamins will be flowing.

From the South Florida setting to Cube’s bounty-hunter character, Epps’ small-time con man and a range of Miami types, the script by Ronald Lang and Cube resides precisely in Elmore Leonard territory. It’s not hard to wish that Leonard himself had been given a swipe at the story in order to beef up characters and deepen the comedy, since “Benjamins” shows the difference between mere formula and a fully developed crime yarn.

Pre-title prelude establishes Cube’s Bucum (sounds like “book ‘em”) as a wild man among bounty hunters, busting in on the Everglades shack of his quarry, Lil’ J (an especially mangy-looking Anthony Michael Hall). Bucum’s boss, bail bondsman Martinez (Anthony Giaimo), refuses to insure this loose cannon and gives him the most irritating cases — such as tracking down Epps’ Reggie. True to the code of the classic movie bounty man, Bucum works alone, refusing to invite eager bonds office secretary Pam (Valarie Rae Miller) along on his pursuits.

Reggie’s intro is little more than an overlong showcase for Epps’ improvisations, one of several times when the movie stops cold for the standup comic to do his thing. The action then picks up again as Bucum chases the lanky crook through the streets of Miami’s South Beach. However, this repeated stop-start motion harms the flow of the action-comedy and isn’t nearly as smoothly calibrated as it was in pic’s obvious models, “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Bad Boys.”

What Bucum and Reggie don’t realize is that they’re running right into an elaborate $20 million diamond heist, overseen by the evil Williamson (Tommy Flanagan), and carried out by Julian (Roger Guenveur Smith) and Williamson’s sultry but deadly g.f. Ursula (Carmen Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie). Hiding from Bucum in Julian’s van, Reggie overhears that the diamond thieves have been double-crossed with fake rocks, but before he manages to get away, Reggie conveniently leaves his wallet — containing a winning lottery ticket worth $60 million — in the van.

Bucum suspects something big is going down, and thinks Reggie has the information he needs, so they join forces against Williamson and his gang.

Pic shifts nicely into caper mode, featuring some nifty setpieces including a particularly Leonard-like scene where the good guys find the real diamonds at the bottom of a tropical fish tank.

The script and Bray’s direction keep a tight lid on out-of-control wackiness in favor of the more businesslike approach that is Bucum’s m.o. An action finale does go a bit loopy, but with enough of a nod to fans of “Thunderball” to keep things fairly amusing.

The Cube-Epps combo is a tad rough around the edges and lacks that necessary friction of the better straight-man/comic pairings. They’re best as a visual duo: Cube is thick, solid and a bit pudgy, looking like he was born with a scowl; Epps is rubbery and antic, his mouth his only weapon. With the right writer, they may have a future together.

Casting goes for broad types with strong thesps such as Flanagan and Smith. At first seeming to be just sexy bodies strutting for the camera, Miller and Eva Mendes as Reggie’s g.f. provide their own doses of gal power.

Lensing in extensive South Florida locales is slick though not overproduced, while most of the action setpieces are somewhat less than state-of-the-art. NBA fans will puzzle at Bucum’s favorite garb, a Miami Heat jersey embossed with the name of Tim Hardaway — who was traded a while ago by the Heat to the Phoenix Suns.

All About the Benjamins

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Cube Vision production. Produced by Ice Cube, Matt Alvarez. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Matt Moore, Claire Rudnick Polstein, Ronald Lang, Mike Epps. Co-producer, Douglas Curtis. Directed by Kevin Bray. Screenplay, Ronald Lang, Ice Cube.

Crew

Camera (Continental Film Laboratories color, Deluxe prints; Wescam widescreen), Glen MacPherson; editor, Suzanne Hines; music, John Murphy; music supervisor, Spring Aspers; production designer, J. Mark Harrington; set decorator, Barbara Peterson; costume designer, Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Mark Weber; supervising sound editor, Robert C. Jackson; special effects coordinator, James Roberts; associate producer, Ron Muhammad; assistant director, John Nelson; second unit camera, Artie Malesci; casting, Mary Vernieu, Anne McCarthy, Felecia Fasano. Reviewed at New Line screening room, L.A., March 4, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Bucum - Ice Cube Reggie - Mike Epps Gina - Eva Mendes Williamson - Tommy Flanagan Ursula - Carmen Chaplin Pam - Valarie Rae Miller Ramose - Roger Guenveur Smith Lil' J - Anthony Michael Hall Kelly - Lil Bow Wow Martinez - Anthony Giaimo Mango - Jeff Chase Mickey - Gino Salvano Ms. Steinberg - Evelyn Brooks Ms. Scharfenberg - Joan Turner

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