Bad Company (2002)

[6 June 2002]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

And I can deny

Chris Rock first appears in Bad Company playing Kevin, a self-consciously suave, designer-suited, Harvard-educated CIA agent. Here he is in Prague, setting up a deal to purchase a thermonuclear device from Vas (Peter Stormare), whom you know is untrustworthy because he’s flanked by Eurotrashy thugs and speaks with the corniest of movie-Russian accents. Kevin himself appears to be just this side of shady, too, but it’s hard to tell if he’s supposed to be acting so stiffly and unconvincingly, or if this is Rock’s idea of Bondish urbanity.

By the time Kevin’s mentor-partner, the top-coated Gaylord Oakes (Anthony Hopkins), arrives on the scene, it’s clear that the deal will not be going down quite as planned. That is, the action was slowing down, just 4 minutes into the movie. I was kind of hoping that Blade would come slamming in the front door to sort things out, but no, these jet-setting secret agent types are more nuanced than that. After a few harrumphs and menacing glances, they agree to meet again with cash and device in hand. Kevin and Oakes part ways on the dark street outside; a funeral procession happens by, mournful chorus included. Gee, you think that maybe trouble is brewing?

Cut to the chase, literally: Kevin is pursued by masked assassins in a car, who actually don’t catch him, even though he’s running uphill. (Apparently, phenomenal running skills are in favor over at the CIA: by the end of Bad Company, Oakes—played by Anthony Hopkins, mind you—will be sprinting three blocks in downtown NYC to track down a nuclear bomb.) No matter his speed: the heroic and noble Kevin doesn’t want to “compromise the mission,” and throws himself over Oakes when still another shooter in a helicopter. Oakes then spends the rest of the film feeling guilty about the whole business.

Not guilty enough, however, to stop him from recruiting Kevin’s twin brother Jake (also played by Chris Rock) to stand in for dead brother during the last crucial moments of this nuclear deal, in order to trap Dragan (Matthew Marsh), the man who killed Kevin and is trying to buy or steal the device from Vas. Dragan is, by the way, a terrorist (of the Eastern-Euro variety), which means that shortly, the bomb will be in play, the President will be at the Superbowl, and Ben Affleck will be choppering in to deliver coordinates and… Oh no. That was last week’s pushed-back-from-fall-2001-terrorist-threat-movie. This week’s is simultaneously less and more, less explosive and more preposterous, less self-important and more cynical. If you can assume the inanity—Pookie as a CIA operative—perhaps you’ll have an easier go of it.

The jokes, tepid as they are, start coming almost as soon as Kevin’s dead, as Oakes’ somber face cuts to Kevin’s twin brother, Jake, a speed-chess hustler/ticket scalper. Working a couple of scams in Washington Square Park, he’s certainly less ridiculous than Kevin, and so, more inviting as your point of identification, not least because he cops an attitude toward the CIA, at least at the beginning. His obnoxiousness is framed, in part, by his clichéd projects background (“We were so poor,” he quips, “we used to lick food stamps for dinner”). How lucky for Jake that his brother—whom he never knew existed, as they were orphaned at birth and sent off to different foster homes—has been brutally murdered. How tedious, though, for you, as Rock appears to be recycling ideas from Down to Earth, a movie that everyone would honestly rather forget.

This premise—the class-and-race-based fish-out-of-water business—is obviously far-fetched (and so the source of some vague comedy), and gets a pseudo-boost from the fact that he’s desperate for cash money because his amazing girlfriend Julie (played by the amazing Kerry Washington, who needs to be doing more than playing distressed damsel-bait, which she inevitably becomes in this movie) is leaving him for a new job and old boyfriend in Seattle. To convince her to stay, Jake takes the CIA gig for $100,000 (evidently, he’s not quite so savvy as he supposes, to settle for this piddly sum), even though, of course, he can’t tell her what he’s doing because you never tell your girlfriend what you’re doing when you’re in a movie like this.

And what exactly is a movie “like this”? Somewhere long a continuum of the standard black-white buddy flick (in which staid white partner learns to live again from wisecracking black partner); La Femme Nikita (where the incredibly naturally gifted young secret agent in training is not apprised of anything that’s at stake, including impending death and threats to his loved ones) and Bait or Enemy of the State (where the target of an surveillance operation is a young black man who is, by definition, on the run from whatever generally oppressive and specially abusive system you want to imagine—cops, CIA, terrorists).

The point of Bad Company—which title refers to what, exactly? The CIA? Kevin’s friends? Jake’s friends? Anthony Hopkins’ management?—appears to be that through his extraordinary trials, Jake will learn to be a better person (better husband material, better sequel material, better son material for his foster mom, played by typecast Irma P. Hall), because he will know how to select wine, appreciate classical music (“You mean like Run-DMC?” he asks), and, no doubt, run fast and hard and ever-impressively.

Directed by Joel Schumacher and produced by the overextended Jerry Bruckheimer (please! take a breath), the movie slides quickly down its slippery illogical slope. Once Jake learns his super-agent etiquette and passes as Kevin in his fancy NYC apartment house, he’s shipped off to Prague to meet with Vas. Surprise, no one tells him that Kevin’s girl is there, and so he walks into his hotel suite there to find the luscious Nicole (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon), a CNN reporter from whom he must hide his secret, lest she bust his cover. She works very hard to seduce him—lingerie in the boudoir, bare foot in his crotch at dinner, deep tongue kissing in the hallway, and oh yes, showering at his place—but he is Chris Rock and this is a comedy-action picture, so the liaison ends in silly efforts to escape thugs carrying loud and large automatic weapons by falling down a laundry chute (and how many action-pix have used this tired bit of business?).

Enter Oakes and his smoothly efficient crew of computer geeks and cold-blooded killers, including pretty boy Seale (Gabriel Macht) and the apparently irrelevant Swanson (Brooke Smith, here turned into Queen of Reaction Shots; she has only three lines of dialogue, but lots of stern looks, plus a perversely undeveloped romance with Oakes). This particular rescue allows Hopkins a remarkably Eastwoodian moment, as Oakes arrives on the scene, chewing gum while shooting an enemy dead.

But such tilting toward cool comes to naught, as Rock concurrently works overtime to maintain a loony-tunes affect (screaming during the inevitable car chase, ducking during numerous shoot-outs, cracking wise during a completely incongruous got-girls-in-my-swank-hotel-room scene, under Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”). The fact that Bad Company was postponed after 9-11 suggests that the distributors were for a moment sensitive to questions of taste, ironic twisting, and timing. Now, while the subject matter might be less immediately traumatic, the twisting has turned painful. Bad Company‘s unwieldy mix of genres and rhythms makes everyone look uncomfortable. However hard Rock and Hopkins work to make sense of the very tired black-white/young-old/ironic-earnest buddy formula, Bad Company‘s timing is still off.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/bad-company/