"Bad Company" arrives one week after "The Sum of All Fears," another glossy entertainment that pivots on the possibility of nuclear terrorism. It's almost impossible to enjoy this uneven but mostly exciting popcorn pic without flinching at a few plot elements that feel a bit too real for comfort.

Setting the worst example of bad timing since “Getting Straight,” a lightweight 1970 campus protest comedy opened within days of the infamous Kent State killings, “Bad Company” arrives one week after “The Sum of All Fears,” another glossy entertainment that pivots on the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and at a time when some U.S. government officials are broadly hinting that such nightmare scenarios are possible, maybe inevitable. Already pushed back from a fall 2001 release to gain distance from the real-life horrors of 9/11, this rapid-fire cloak-and-dagger comedy-drama may still strike many ticketbuyers as the wrong film at the wrong time. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to enjoy this uneven but mostly exciting popcorn pic without flinching at a few plot elements that feel a bit too real for comfort.

It will say a lot about the drawing power of top-billed Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock if “Bad Company” does indeed transcend its quease-inducing moments and achieve the mid-range hit status it likely would have managed a year or so ago. Pic is a typically hard-charging Jerry Bruckheimer production, complete with name actors, thunderous musical score, lots of high-tech machinery and an abundance of moodily lit bluish-gray interiors. But word of mouth may have more effect on B.O. prospects than hard-sell advertising of seemingly sure-fire action-comedy ingredients.

Jumping back into the saddle as a frankly commercial helmer-for-hire after recent dalliances in the semi-indie area, director Joel Schumacher keeps things aptly fast and furious. Auds expecting wall-to-wall Rock yocks may be mildly surprised by deadly serious opening scenes in Prague as CIA spook Gaylord Oakes (Hopkins) and top operative Kevin Pope (Rock) dicker with Adrik Vass (Peter Stormare), a Russian black-marketer. They offer Vass $1 million toward a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, there’s a rival bidder. One thing leads to another, and Pope is fatally wounded while saving Oakes’ life during an ambush.

Flash forward to the funny stuff: Rock reappears as Jake Hayes, a motor-mouth New York sharpie who earns small change as a chess hustler and ticket scalper. Jake doesn’t know he had a long-lost, separated-at-birth twin brother. But Oakes and his underlings appear and use smooth talk and big bucks to coax Jake into posing as his sibling just long enough to complete the Prague deal 10 days hence.

Jake reluctantly agrees, primarily to impress his nursing student girlfriend, Julie (Kerry Washington). This cues a predictable but modestly amusing training sequence, as the streetwise Jake is drilled in ways to pass himself off as his late brother.

Midway through the Manhattan training, the rival bidder — Dragan Adjanic (Matthew Marsh), a ruthless psychopath from the former Yugoslavia — sends another group of assassins after “Kevin Pope,” leading to a slam-bang action set piece that is marred only by fleeting patches of confusion. Schumacher and editor Mark Goldblatt undermine their handiwork by occasionally failing to define clear lines of cause-and-effect activity.

Even when things are slightly fuzzy, however, Hopkins maintains an appealingly jaded, been-there/shot-that nonchalance as Oakes. In one inspired throwaway bit, he doesn’t even miss a lazy chew on his gum while pumping an extra round into a fallen assassin, matter-of-factly making sure that the guy really is, you know, dead.

At the same time, however, Hopkins persuasively conveys a sense of guilt for the death of Kevin Pope.

Rock is a tad too broad — and, worse, a bit too borderline-offensive caricature-like — in scenes where Jake whines, screams and otherwise expresses mortal fear while dodging bullets, avoiding knives and maneuvering through high-speed auto chases. On the other hand, Rock is solid when his character stands up for himself; his angry put-down of Oakes’ cold-blooded, condescending superior is a bound-to-be-quoted instant classic. Better still, Rock gains in stature and credibility during the final half-hour or so, as “Bad Company” gradually sheds most of its comic relief to gain momentum for a seriously suspenseful climax.

Trouble is, the final scenes are likely to be most troublesome for auds aware of real-world potential for nuclear terrorism.

The race against time is sharply edited, briskly paced and genuinely nerve-racking stuff. It’s also, alas, a lot for auds to swallow right now. Especially when Oakes sagely notes: “You’d be surprised what you can send by air freight.”

As a odd-couple, buddy-buddy action comedy, “Bad Company” is a mixed bag. The comical bits often are so overplayed that they actually get in the way of the familiar but effective thriller elements. Indeed, the most hilarious moments are those in which Hopkins and Rock play off against each other without raising their voices.

As you might expect in a Bruckheimer-produced opus, production values are ultra-slick. Of particular note is lenser Dariusz A. Wolski’s exemplary lensing of well-chosen Prague locations. Also typical for a Bruckheimer: A superior supporting cast. As Oakes’ most valuable cohorts, Brooke Smith and Gabriel Macht make the absolute most of thinly written roles, evidencing more than enough screen presence to make themselves memorable even amid the distracting sound and fury.

Bad Company

Production

A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films production. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Browning. Executive producers, Chad Oman, Clayton Townsend, Larry Simpson, Gary Goodman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Screenplay, Jason Richman, Michael Browning, based on story by Gary Goodman and David Himmelstein.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Dariusz A. Wolski; editor, Mark Goldblatt; music, Trevor Rabin; music supervisors, Kathy Nelson, Bob Badami; production designer, Jan Roelfs; art director, Wray Steven Graham; set decorator, Leslie Pope; costume designer, Beatrix Pasztor; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Peter Devlin; associate producers, Pat Sandston, Ken bates, Eli Richbourg, Pat Sandston, Matthew Stillman, David Minkowski; assistant director, Mark Cotone; casting, Victoria Thomas. Reviewed at Magic Johnson Theatre, Houston, May 29, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Gaylord Oakes - Anthony Hopkins Jake Hayes/Kevin Pope - Chris Rock Dragan Adjanic - Matthew Marsh Seale - Gabriel Macht Julie - Kerry Washington Jarma - Adoni Maropis Nicole - Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon Adrik Vas - Peter Stormare Michelle Petrov - Dragan Micanovic Roland Yates - John Slattery

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