What’s funnier than a mouthy comedian paired with a more phlegmatic cop, crook, or other movie-size professional? For decades, black mouthy comedians have added racially charged laughs to standard odd-couple dynamics. Back as far as TV’s ”I Spy” in the 1960s, Bill Cosby provided attitude when Robert Culp couldn’t manufacture enough on his own. Eddie Murphy propelled ”48 HRS” on the combustion of his patter with Nick Nolte. More recently, Chris Tucker kick-yakked his way to movie stardom with Jackie Chan in their two ”Rush Hour” comedies. (The ”Lethal Weapon” formula turned the tables on racial profiling, lightening Danny Glover’s African-American gravitas with Mel Gibson’s cracker wackiness.)
In Bad Company, Chris Rock is the designated brother, and man, oh man, do a lot of white guys owe Rock big time. The prodigiously sharp comedian plays Jake Hayes, a quick-witted New York City street entrepreneur — he hustles chess games and scalps music and sports tickets — who is recruited against his will to work for the CIA. More specifically, Hayes himself is hustled, and trained to pass for the twin brother he never knew he had, a straight-arrow, antiques-dealing buppie agent (also played by Rock) killed in Prague while negotiating an undercover nuclear-weapons deal on behalf of Gaylord Oakes (Anthony Hopkins), an old CIA hand as WASPy and world-weary as his name. It’s Oakes’ distasteful but necessary job to buff Jake up to honky-twit secret-agent standards, then send the live-wire twin out to save the world, literally, from nuclear terrorism far too anxiety-provoking for comedy in the current climate. (Rogues with a suitcase bomb come within seconds of nuking Grand Central Station, another pre-9/11 plot jolly that, like ”The Sum of All Fears,” plays havoc on post-9/11 pulses.)
It’s Chris Rock’s job, meanwhile, to save this ungainly, schizophrenic comedy-thriller hybrid, and by God if he doesn’t almost do it, one-upping with such scattershot effectiveness that you can see walrus-colored Hopkins actually warm up — yes, yes, I’m sure of it, the icy blue eyes in that old granite head actually twinkle for a moment or two. ”Prague looks like Newark,” Jake announces dismissively; later, while trying to snow a cartoonish bomb merchant (Peter Stormare), he invokes the scientific principles of the great ”Dr. Dre.”
Shrewd and unflummoxed even when undermined by the story’s inherent stupidity, Rock is the patch of street smarts on which an even odder couple stand: Joel Schumacher directs with far less fetishism than he might have, while producer Jerry Bruckheimer kicks up only a fraction of the bull dust usually visible in his projects. True, we’ve got to endure the hair-tearing propaganda of a terrorist who hectors, ”Your country grows fat while everyone else starves.”
But in exchange we’ve got Rock’s Hayes, making a break for freedom, dialing Hopkins’ Oakes from a pay phone to tell him, ”I’m at the corner of Eat S— and F— You!” And under the circumstances, the attitude counts as outright subversiveness.