"Taxi" serves up embarrassing evidence that even a ragged French original can be better than its American remake. Failing to improve on the inept but hugely successful 1998 Luc Besson vehicle, pic stuffs enough car chases and crack-ups in 90-plus minutes to draw strong crowds in opening five-day slot. Vid spin will be in fifth gear.

Taxi” serves up embarrassing evidence that even a ragged French original can be better than its American remake. Failing to improve on the inept but hugely successful (in Euro markets) 1998 Luc Besson vehicle also named “Taxi,” new pic commits any number of comedic violations during an aimless pursuit of laughs. A complete non-starter for ex-“Saturday Night Live” regular Jimmy Fallon’s movie career, buddy cop pic stuffs enough car chases and crack-ups in 90-plus minutes to draw strong crowds in opening five-day slot. Vid spin will be in fifth gear.

Based on a simple story — a hapless New York cop who stinks at driving joins forces with a skilled cabby to nail a ring of bodacious Brazilian bank robbers — pic marks an interesting cultural crossroads. The original “Taxi” was a direct Gallic response to American urban action movies, in the same way that “Seven Samurai” was a direct Japanese response to the American Western.

U.S. remake tries to retain the original’s essence while returning the genre to home turf. Choice of this remake (adapted by a trio of screenwriters from Besson’s script) is curious because neither the original nor its two sequels ever made it Stateside theatrically or on vid. New “Taxi’s” entire appeal is on the drawing power of co-stars Fallon and Queen Latifah, who may have had a ball on the “SNL” set but flail in a gray zone of underwritten comedy and desperately pitched improv.

Pic begins with a charming joke: After a wild opening bike ride through Gotham, biker rips off helmet to reveal … Latifah as daredevilish Belle. Early minutes almost exactly mirror the original’s, with Belle given a warm send-off on her last day on the job before she gets her license to drive a New York City taxi.

Differences with Besson’s material begin to emerge with Fallon’s entry as profoundly klutzy and lunk-headed cop Washburn. Unlike Frederic Diefenthal’s Emelien in the first “Taxi,” who can’t drive at all but who’s at least a competent cop, Fallon’s Washburn makes Inspector Clouseau look like a genius , with neither he nor director Tim Story attempting to create a guy who could plausibly be on the police force.

Universally known by his comrades as a loser and barely tolerated by boss and ex-g.f. Lt. Marta Robbins (Jennifer Esposito), Washburn is such a washout that he steers the entire movie off the road. Washburn and Belle meet cute while he pursues a gang of female (and gorgeous and leggy) Brazilian bank robbers. Washburn commandeers Belle’s taxi for the chase.

Yank version works very hard to amp up the danger and humor — Washburn and Belle are captured by the thieves and end up in a room full of laughing gas — while tiresomely overplaying the old routine of the hero cop being on the outs with his department and going outside the law to get the job done.

In an unsuccessful variation from the original, Ann-Margret appears as Washburn’s permanently drunk mom (she has no character name): Besson’s original mother character was actually a charming matron.

Washburn’s out-of-left-field deductions that crack the case signal that this is a script where anything goes and nothing really matters, except perhaps for the extremely brave team of drivers helmed by stunt coordinators Thomas Robinson Harper, G.A. Aguilar, Russell Solberg and Brian Smrz.

They leave a deeper impression than a cast on autopilot. Even the usually vivacious Latifah appears uninspired if not downright perplexed when dealing with Fallon’s haphazard improv.

Vance Burberry makes a solid d.p. feature debut with muscular widescreen lensing, amplified by Stuart Levy’s all-pro editing. Location scouts in audience will have a hoot observing how locales suddenly shift block to block from New York to Los Angeles and back again. NASCAR fans are thrown a bone in final scene, with an uncredited cameo by Jeff Gordon.

Taxi

Production

A Twentieth Century Fox release of a Europacorp/Robert Simonds production. Produced by Luc Besson. Executive producers, Robert Simonds, Ira Shuman. Co-producer, Steve Chasman. Directed by Tim Story. Screenplay, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, Jim Kouf, based upon the film written by Luc Besson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color and prints, Arriflex widescreen), Vance Burberry; editor, Stuart Levy; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisor, Spring Aspers; production designer, Mayne Berke; art director, Maria Baker; set designer, Betty S. Krul; set decorator, Jackie Carr; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays ; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), David D. Obermeyer; supervising sound editor, David A. Whittaker; visual effects supervisor, Raymond McIntyre Jr.; special effects coordinator, Burt Dalton; visual effects, Pixel Magic; digital effects supervisor, Reid Paul; stunt coordinators, Thomas Robinson Harper, G.A. Aguilar, Russell Solberg, Brian Smrz; assistant director, Marty Eli Schwartz; second unit directors, Smrz, M. James Arnett; second unit cameras, Larry Blanford, Ron Hersey; casting, Donna Isaacson, Christian Kaplan, Ilene Starger. Reviewed at Twentieth Century Fox Studios screening room, Los Angeles, Oct. 4, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 MIN. (English, Portuguese dialogue)

With

Belle - Queen Latifah Washburn - Jimmy Fallon Vanessa - Giselle Bundchen Lt. Marta Robbins - Jennifer Esposito Washburn's Mom - Ann-Margret Jesse - Henry Simmons Agent Mullins - Christian Kane Redhead - Ana Cristina de Oliveira Third Robber - Ingrid Vandebosch Fourth Robber - Magali Amadei

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