The Man" trades solely on the audience's good feelings for the contrasting comic profiles of Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy. With Jackson as a ruthless, no-BS ATF agent and Levy as an unsuspecting dental supply salesman caught up in a criminal plot, casting -- and the inevitable shtick it brings -- is the most important element of this functional if thoroughly uninspired movie.

The Man” trades solely on the audience’s good feelings for the contrasting comic profiles of Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy. With Jackson as a ruthless, no-BS ATF agent and Levy as an unsuspecting dental supply salesman caught up in a criminal plot, casting — and the inevitable shtick it brings — is the most important element of this functional if thoroughly uninspired movie. Because it clings to the comedy-action template of “48 Hrs.,” pic feels like it could have been made 15 years ago. This not-quite-fall release will arrest a good number of eyeballs in its opening weekend, before a rapid transfer to vid precincts.

Thrilled that he’s set to deliver a speech at a dental supply convention in Detroit, Andy Fiddler (Levy) ventures from his Wisconsin home to the Motor City. Agent Derrick Vann (Jackson) is in a far more sour state, as his partner has been executed in the wake of a theft of arms from the Dept. of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms’ Detroit headquarters.

Internal affairs agent Peters (Miguel Ferrer) presumes Derrick is as dirty as his partner, who was in on the heist. A tough, glowering cop with funky street cred, Derrick scorns Peters while using his vintage, souped-up Cadillac as a weapon to force street punk Booty (Anthony Mackie) to spill info on the crooks.

Andy and Derrick finally come together through an unlikely mix-up involving an edition of USA Today and a lunch bag containing a gun that’s delivered by a tanned, clean-shaven Brit named Joey (Luke Goss). Thinking he’s nabbed a key player in the stolen-arms deal, Derrick holds Andy under arrest, quickly realizing this well-mannered but motor-mouthed fellow is both more and less than he bargained for.

With Jackson and Levy side by side in a car for long stretches of time, director Les Mayfield (“Blue Streak,” “Encino Man”) needs only to cut back and forth between thesps’ faces as they spar, retort, opine, scream and insult each other. Given the absurd gap between the black cop who flirts with danger and cusses a blue streak and the white Jewish Midwesterner who’s more of an out-of-towner than Jack Lemmon, “The Man” is most surprising in that it rarely plays the race card. Instead, pic relies purely on Levy’s and Jackson’s performing instruments; as Mayfield shoots things, it amounts to a battle of arching eyebrows.

Everything else here is at the periphery, including an exceedingly pallid plot symbolized by Goss playing yet another of Hollywood’s slickster European baddies, surely the most tired and overdone of stock characters. Joey is actually the heist’s mastermind, whom Derrick dupes into thinking Andy is a big-time arms trader.

Not an iota of it makes sense–including a thin side plot involving Derrick’s ex-wife and young daughter — but the Jackson-Levy show is all that counts, even when screenwriters Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman and Steve Carpenter can come up with nothing more for the pair than extended fart jokes.

If acting is reacting, then Jackson and Levy do an awful lot of acting. And if Jackson used to be the one who could be relied on to steal scenes, then Levy has taken that job over with deadpan assuredness.

Despite a noticeable use of Toronto street locales for Detroit, Adam Kane’s lensing, Carol Spier’s production design and general staging opt for a fairly convincing look and feel. The 79-minute playing time is indicative of the film’s slim content.

The Man

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Fried Films production in association with Meradin Prods. Produced by Rob Fried. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Kent Alterman, Matthew Hart. Co-producer, Bill Straus. Directed by Les Mayfield. Screenplay, Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman, Steve Carpenter; story, Piddock, Oberman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color and prints), Adam Kane; editor, Jeffrey Wolf; music, John Murphy; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, Carol Spier; art director, James McAteer; set decorator, Peter Nicolakakos; costume designer, Delphine White; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Bruce Carwardine; supervising sound editors, Victor Ray Ennis, Mark P. Stoeckinger; visual effects supervisors, Raymond Gieringer, Mark Dornfeld; visual effects, Intelligent Creatures, Custom Film Effects; stunt coordinator, John Stoneham Jr.; assistant director, J.J. Authors; second unit director, Stoneham; second unit camera, David Moxness, Chris Tammaro; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond. Reviewed at Pacific Grove Theater, Los Angeles, Aug. 31, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Derrick Vann - Samuel L. Jackson Andy Fiddler - Eugene Levy Joey/Kane - Luke Goss Agent Peters - Miguel Ferrer Lt. Rita Carbone - Susie Essman Booty - Anthony Mackie Diaz - Horatio Sanz Dara Vann - Rachael Crawford Kate Vann - Tomorrow Baldwin Montgomery

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