There’s a simple reason Hollywood keeps teaming gruff white lawmen with sassy black ex-cons in the ”48 HRS.” mold: It’s an easy way to pull in white folks and nonwhite folks, two demographics that, as far as studio marketing departments seem to be concerned, are antithetical. But coming after a summer in which movies starring — not to mention written, produced, and directed by — African Americans have been grossing major money and attracting more integrated audiences than ever, Bait, a tired action thriller determined to play the race card every which way for every which kind of viewer, seems hopelessly behind the curve.
The point of making ”Bait” should have been to hand Jamie Foxx a bona fide showcase. A gifted mimic who launched himself (as did Jim Carrey and umpteen Wayanses) on the sketch series ”In Living Color,” Foxx was the best part of Oliver Stone’s football drama ”Any Given Sunday.” He’s headed into season 5 of ”The Jamie Foxx Show” as one of the WB network’s most popular sitcom stars. But execs at Warner Bros. evidently felt they couldn’t package Foxx to a mass audience without adulterating the mix. Result: Foxx spends the first half hour of ”Bait” as a guest star in his own movie.
After a scratchy, ”Seven” style credits sequence that turns out to be one of the milder examples of director Antoine Fuqua’s exhaustingly overcut, overfogged, ultrabaroque visual style (he laid on similar excesses in ”The Replacement Killers”), ”Bait” settles in for an extended bout of split personality. We keep lurching back and forth from a heist at a Manhattan gold reserve, where every face shown in relentless close-up (did Fuqua lose all the long-distance lenses?) is white, to a bungled burglary at a seafood warehouse, where Foxx, as genial loser Alvin Sanders, keeps correcting his hapless accomplice (Mike Epps) about what they’re stealing: ”Not shrimps, baby, prawns.” Later in the movie, these two events will prove fatefully connected. But watching them unfold is like being at the mercy of a compulsive channel surfer who can’t stop flipping between a bad UPN cop show and a stock WB sitcom. Even the music shifts abruptly, now all action movie flourishes (the gold theft), now jazzy, comedic riffs (the bungled prawn caper).
Things don’t mesh any more smoothly once the stories converge, as jailbird Foxx winds up with a transmitter unwittingly buried in his jaw so that he’ll lead a surly federal agent (David Morse, wasted in a one-note role) to the gold heist’s effete mastermind (Doug Hutchison, doing an amusing John Malkovich impression). Through two needlessly distended hours, Foxx’s wise guy charm is played against Morse’s uptight ferocity in a way that often panders to stereotypical views on race relations, which gives the whole picture a patronizing air. Jamie Foxx deserves better, and so do you.