Ambles amiably from incident to incident with a "What, me worry?" disregard for such niceties as narrative logic or character consistency. Modestly engaging, only gradually reveals itself as a seriocomic take on standard-issue noir. Theatrical take might be middling, but Warners release could enjoy a bigger bounce on homevid and pay-cable.

Like a tourist who has spent too much time in the sun, “The Big Bounce” ambles amiably from incident to incident with a “What, me worry?” disregard for such niceties as narrative logic or character consistency. It’s difficult to tell how much of its slacker-style insouciance is intentional, and how much may be a side effect of post-production overhaul. Modestly engaging, albeit instantly forgettable shaggy-dog story only gradually reveals itself as a seriocomic take on standard-issue noir. Theatrical take might be middling, but Warners release could enjoy a bigger bounce as homevid product and pay-cable staple.

Perhaps the pic’s most intriguing aspect is the half-respectful, half-subversive approach to its source material. “Big Bounce” is the second film adapted from the 1969 book of the same name by Elmore Leonard, who had specialized in Western fiction before penning the tome as his first crime novel. First “Bounce” film was directed in 1969 by Alex March as a relatively straightforward and mildly steamy neo-noir melodrama. A frightfully intense Ryan O’Neal (in his first movie lead) starred with Leigh Taylor-Young. (Original pic gets overdue homevid release in March.)

New “Bounce” is less faithful to Leonard’s novel (scripter Sebastian Gutierrez adds a few twists to the relatively bland plot) but somehow conveys more of the author’s trademark spirit. Indeed, the latest version often seems more like an Elmore Leonard scenario than the novel itself — which Leonard wrote a decade or more before perfecting the distinctively sneaky-sardonic style that has served him so well in popular books like “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty.”

Owen Wilson appropriately does his mild-and-hazy surfer-dude thing in the lead role of Jack Ryan, here a layabout who journeys to Hawaii to ride the waves. (Leonard, by the way, claimed the name for his character long before Tom Clancy used it for his hero.) To finance his fun in the sun, Ryan takes a construction job from Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise), a shady real estate wheeler-dealer, but loses the job after settling a dispute with a bullying foreman (footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones) by applying a baseball bat to the fellow’s jaw. The David-versus-Goliath rough stuff amuses Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman, wily), a conspicuously friendly district judge who offers Ryan an honest job as handyman at Crewes’ not-quite-palatial hotel.

Nancy Hayes (Sara Foster), Ritchie’s mistress, also is impressed by Ryan, especially when she learns of the breaking-and-entering charges on his rap sheet. After teasing Ryan with her taste for cheap thrills — vandalism, unlawful entry and other dangerous kicks she describes as “bounces” — she tries to recruit him in a scheme to steal $200,000 (cash earmarked for bribing underworld figures) from Ritchie’s hunting-lodge safe.

But Ryan is dubious: He can’t decide whether Nancy — aptly described by an admirer as “a knockout in a slutty kind of way” — wants a partner in crime, or a fall guy. Newcomer Foster manages to sustain mystery about her character’s true colors.

Throughout much of “Big Bounce,” director George Armitage strives for the same mix of dark humor, fortuitous interplay and potentially homicidal behavior that distinguished “Miami Blues,” his 1990 adaptation of a Charles Willeford novel. Despite sporadic success, however, pic is hampered by uncertain shifts of tone and inexplicable gaps in continuity.

There’s ample evidence of last-minute recutting and restructuring: Abruptly truncated subplots, scenes that feel radically shortened, a climax that fizzles because it pivots on a relationship the audience knows nothing about. Prominently billed actors (especially Sinise and Jones) make only fleeting appearances, while others (including Bebe Neuwirth as Ritchie’s unhappy wife, a character who never appears in Leonard’s novel) are hard-pressed to maneuver through seemingly arbitrary mood swings.

Even so, “Big Bounce” generates an overall pleasant vibe, due in no small measure to Wilson, whose ingratiating performance is suffused with an air of improvisation, off-the-cuff humor and off-the-wall absurdity. It’s no small credit to Armitage and Gutierrez that some of the funniest stuff they’ve invented for the pic — a cop (Andrew Wilson) with a secret sex life and a fondness for show tunes, an unwelcome appearance by Ritchie’s right-hand man (nicely underplayed by Charlie Sheen) while Nancy is entertaining Ryan — could easily be mistaken for material taken from a Leonard novel.

Pic dwells lovingly on spectacular North Shore scenery, sometimes to the point of self-parody. (Key scenes are interspersed with shots of rolling waves that recall the commercial breaks for “Hawaii Five-O.”) Lenser Jeffrey L. Kimball and production designer Stephen Altman do a bang-up job of conveying wide diversity of socioeconomic details, from relaxed funkiness of gone-to-seed hotel cabanas to the nouveau-riche excess of Ritchie’s expensive home.

Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton briefly figure into the plot as Freeman’s card-playing buddies. Their relaxed “guest star” appearances underscore the informality of the entire enterprise.

The Big Bounce

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Shangri-La Entertainment presentation of a Material Films production. Produced by Steve Bing, Jorge Saralegui. Executive producers, Zane Weiner, Brent Armitage. Co-producer, Channing Dungee. Directed by George Armitage. Screenplay, Sebastian Gutierrez, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Jeffrey L. Kimball; editors, Brian Berdan, Barry Malkin; music, George S. Clinton; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, Stephen Altman; art director, John Bucklin; set decorator, Chris Spellman; costume designers, Betsy Cox, Tracy Tynan; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Richard Goodman; assistant director, Gary Marcus; second unit director, Brent Armitage; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Jan. 26, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Jack Ryan - Owen Wilson Walter Crewes - Morgan Freeman Ray Ritchie - Gary Sinise Nancy Hayes - Sara Foster Joe Lurie - Willie Nelson Lou Harris - Vinnie Jones Alison Ritchie - Bebe Neuwirth Bob Rogers Jr. - Charlie Sheen Bob Rogers Sr. - Harry Dean Stanton Ned Coleman - Andrew Wilson Dick - Steve Jones Virginia (No. 9) - Anahit Minasyan

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