We Back on the Block
Alvin Sanders (Jamie Foxx) is on the run. Almost from the moment you first see him, Alvin is running, from dogs and bad guys and supposed good guys, though the very fact that he’s running from them makes even the good guys suspect. Although he’s basically a petty thief, Alvin is quite brilliant (though this emerges in some rather perverse ways), well-intentioned, and undeniably charming. Sure, he talks fast and postures like a tough guy, but from jump, Bait makes sure you know right away that he’s easily frightened, amiable, and uses his genius only in the most nonthreatening ways. He doesn’t even wear baggy jeans.
To set up this nice-guyness, the film introduces Alvin just as he and his brother Stevie (Mike Epps, from Next Friday) embark on one of the more harebrained schemes ever conceived, stealing sacks of shrimps from a seafood warehouse. Within two minutes, Alvin and Stevie are charging down an alley, bags slung over their shoulders and a big old Doberman guard dog close on their asses. The brothers split up, and in just a couple more minutes, Alvin’s in a prison cell with a white guy named Jaster (Robert Pastorelli), who just happens to have stolen and hidden $42 million in gold and also happens to have a heart condition. Afraid he’s going to die soon (which he does), Jaster gives Alvin a cryptic message to deliver to his (Jaster’s) wife. The special treasury agents looking for the gold decide that Alvin knows something (which he only sort of does: he has no idea what the coded message means) and set about to develop a specific technology that will enable them to use Alvin to recover the loot. (Hence, “bait,” a reference parlayed into a number of jokes during the film, not the least cute being Alvin’s mugshot on his arrest that fateful night, for which he poses holding a shrimp up next to his face.)
The surveillance technology turns out to be a kind of tracking device implanted surgically into Alvin’s jaw: it happens while he’s in prison, and don’t even ask how the feds manage this insanely clandestine “operation” as Alvin’s wheeled in on a gurney, someone asks the man in charge, “Exactly how many laws are you breaking here?” To which he responds, “You don’t want to know.” I guess that means “a lot.” It plainly means that this man in charge who is by the way, named Edgar Clenteen (David Morse) is a serious force to be reckoned with, menacing without even needing to draw a weapon: he’s unnerving just by showing up. So, in his first scene, Clenteen observes the detectives and cops who are standing around, contaminating “his” crime scene (the vault from which the gold has disappeared), then scares them all off with a few choice words. All this is to say, he is the complete opposite of our Alvin.
As federal agents tend to do in such situations, Clenteen assembles a crackerjack team, including David Paymer as his second in command, Scream‘s Jamie Kennedy as the computer geek (who wears mr. cool sunglasses for his intro shot), Nestor Serrano as the man on the street, and Megan Dodds as the woman (she needs no other description, unfortunately: the film features repeated closeups of her red-lipsticked mouth during tense situations). Their objective is to be there at the precise moment when Alvin is contacted by Jaster’s partner, a Kevin Spacey-meets-John Malkovichian psycho named Bristol (Doug Hutchison, slimy Percy in The Green Mile and the even slimier Tooms in TV’s X-Files). Bristol escaped at the time of the heist, and has been waiting nearly two years to track down the gold his dead partner stashed. As bait, Alvin’s expendable, according to Clenteen, but it’s not long before the team is admiring their target’s chutzpah and secretly wishing him well. Their surveillance is total: they listen to Alvin as he reunites with Stevie (“Yeah! We back on the block!”) and with his girlfriend Lisa (Kimberly Elise), who is also he learns just now the mother of his infant son. Complications arise, as Bristol invades Alvin’s domestic space (kidnapping the mother and child, naturally).
All this relentless tracking mapping Alvin with digital devices and grids, protecting him from arrests and beat-downs, listening in on him having luscious sex with his woman (the men listening in are increasingly uncomfortable, the woman sucks on her pencil), or foolishly applying for a job at a store he once robbed may bring to mind another recent film, Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), in which Will Smith is the object of U.S. military pursuit, embodied by Jon Voight. And this reference in turn may bring to mind the Keenen Ivory Wayans vehicle, Most Wanted (1997), in which he is also pursued by an ornery authority figure played by Jon Voight, or again the many variations: Brian Hooks in 3 Strikes (2000), Danny Glover in Predator 2 (1990, where the “authorities” are space aliens), Martin Lawrence in Blue Streak (1999), Samuel Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and The Negotiator (1998), Ice T in Surviving the Game (1994), Denzel Washington in Ricochet (1991), Tupac Shakur in Gridlock’d (1997), Laurence Fishburne in Fled (1996), Ving Rhames and Vondie Curtis-Hall in The Drop Squad (1994), Mario Van Peebles in Solo (1996), Will Smith in Wild Wild West (1999), Wesley Snipes in U.S. Marshals (1998) and Boiling Point (1993), and so on. This list is hardly exhaustive, but you see what I’m getting at: a black man on the run from the law is, unfortunately, always timely, dating back to Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams’s “race” movies and expanding representational possibilities in more militant incarnations like Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Ivan Dixon in The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), or even the venerable Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958).
A friend of mine, Scott Trafton, calls these films “new fugitive slave narratives,” because they rehearse and sometimes reinvent many of the old texts’ themes and plot structures: brainy, sexy, unapologetically aggressive black male protagonists (and they are almost always male, Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson being the 1970s’ potent exceptions) outfox white authorities, prove themselves superior in numerous arenas (political, physical, legal, romantic), find support from a subversive network or individual. As it happens, Bait is completely upfront about its sources, citing Harriet Tubman by name and sending Alvin through a variety of “underground” routes to reach his goals (dark city streets, the back stables at a racetrack), in addition to featuring repeated images of him locked up, tied up, and otherwise messed up by diabolical maniacs on both sides of the law (these include a pair of “comic” Latinos, Julio and Ramundo [Jeffrey Donovan and Oz‘s Kirk Acevedo], who, thwarted in their efforts to pound him, start calling Alvin “the Devil” because his persistent good luck is just too strange).
The fact that Bait can make these frankly righteous points without seeming overtly self-righteous is to its credit, though to do so it occasionally lapses into crude comedy (which Foxx actually handles with sly charm) and cruder action-movie cliches (Alvin has to save his otherwise very capable girlfriend when she’s knocked unconscious). The film’s most effective balancing act comes in the form of Foxx’s terrific performance: throughout, he’s quirky, subtle, and thankfully able to keep up with the movie’s lurching tone-and-genre shifts, from comedy to action to almost-arty to melodrama. It’s a tricky part, and he mostly convinces you that good-hearted Alvin is not as clueless as he seems.
The film works hard to hit on multiple generic thrills while also making its audience-friendly “fugitive slave narrative” points about class and race politics. And generally, Bait does all right as an intelligent action-comedy. And if it isn’t so blunt with its politics as, say, Blade, it does have a similar sensational stylishness (time-lapse photography, lots of neon and chiaroscuro). Director Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers), cinematographer Tobias Schleisser, and editor Alan Edward Bell have concocted outrageous riffs on conventions like car chases and fight scenes, which are just flat-out awesome to watch. You feel like you’re on some wild-ass carnival ride: the images are so close and the cuts so fast that you can barely read what’s going on. For instance, Alvin and Bristol beat on each other in a horse’s stall, the animal thrashing about all around them, suddenly you notice out of the corner of your eye that Alvin is actually biting that asshole. It’s enough to make you wonder who and what you’re rooting for. And that’s a good thing to wonder.