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A Big Thud

Vince Bucci/Getty Images

The Big Bounce finds a new way to ruin Elmore Leonard.

Elmore Leonard is perhaps the most cinematic novelist writing in the English language. This is partly due to his usual subject matter—strong men and beautiful women on the edge of the law—but still more to the fact that his books read very nearly in real-time. Unlike most crime writers, for whom no physical or emotional detail is too small, Leonard has an extraordinary gift for concision: In any given scene he tells you just enough for the scene to play, and nothing more. As a result, his novels tend to go by in a happy, imagistic blur that feels more like a pleasant moviegoing experience than most actual trips to the multiplex.

It's odd, then, that over the years Leonard's books have had notoriously bumpy transitions from page to screen. Fifteen of his crime novels have been adapted for film or television (two of them twice), with two more—Be Cool and Tishomingo Blues—in the pipeline. But up until the 1990s, none of these many adaptations really captured Leonard's unique blend of menace and good humor, violence and romance, darkness and light. His fiction is delicately poised midway between the savage noir of James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane and the goofy capers of Carl Hiassen: The possibility of violence always lurks, but his protagonists don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, and neither does he. It's the hit without the grit. Most of the early film adaptations—Mr. Majestyk, 52 Pick-Up, Stick—captured the violence (it's hard not to, given the characters' tendency to shoot one another), but missed Leonard's light, semi-comic touch.

Then came Quentin Tarantino and Get Shorty. Tarantino's literal contribution to the film—directed by Barry Sonnenfeld from a screenplay by Scott Frank—was merely to help persuade John Travolta to take the lead role. ("This is the one you say 'yes' to," he reportedly advised.) But stylistically, Get Shorty is very much in debt to Tarantino, who in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and (especially) True Romance had finally offered a filmic vocabulary suited to Leonard: tough but jaunty, neither overly serious nor broadly comic, and above all, cool. (In 1995, Leonard told the Palm Beach Post that when he saw True Romance he thought, "This is what one of my books should be.") Tarantino's taste for both violence and humor may have far outstripped the more humane, understated Leonard, but the young director—who was arrested as a teenager for shoplifting one of Leonard's books—intuitively understood the balance between the two. It didn't hurt that both men's work abounds with sharp, pop-referential dialogue, intermingles black and white characters with casual confidence, and has a funky, retro 70s feel to it. In any case, Hollywood seemed finally to have found the formula for translating Leonard to the big screen: Following on the success of Get Shorty came Tarantino's solid but underwhelming Jackie Brown (1997) and the brilliant Out of Sight (1998), again written by Frank.

But judging from The Big Bounce, released on video this week, that formula has been misplaced, if not lost altogether. The film, directed by talented veteran George Armitage, offered a chance to make up for a previous adaptation of the same book, a 1969 version notable chiefly for being one of Ryan O'Neal's first films. The story is a simple one: A good-natured petty thief falls for the beautiful, thrill-seeking girlfriend of a corporate tycoon, who entices him into a series of escalating crimes that culminates with the chance for a big "bounce": stealing a large sum of cash from the tycoon. The earlier adaptation took some liberties (for example, moving the action from Michigan to California) and fell into the trap of accentuating the uglier aspects of the story (even adding suicide and prostitution to the mix). But it was for the most part a good faith effort to capture Leonard's original, ruined by atrocious execution. Those who have followed O'Neal's subsequent career will be unsurprised to hear that he is consistently good-looking and at no time convincing; those who have followed the subsequent career of female lead Leigh Taylor-Young--well, you've clearly got far too much time on your hands. The movie was made at a moment when it was axiomatic that Music Will Change the World, so it also boasts an appallingly intrusive soundtrack featuring a band that no doubt aspired to open for the group that opened for Herman's Hermits. All in all, it is exactly the kind of film that accounted for the longstanding belief that Elmore Leonard could not be filmed.

Not that Armitage's current version would likely disabuse anyone of this notion. It does, however, find a brand-new way to fail its source material: Rather than getting the dark side of Leonard but missing the light, it makes the opposite mistake, offering a silly frolic bleached free of any hint of suspense or danger. The story has been moved westward once again, to Hawaii (if a third remake is ever made, it will have to take place in Micronesia), and relocated up the economic ladder: The protagonist, Jack Ryan, is no longer an itinerant cucumber picker but rather a construction worker. His moral sense, too, has been elevated: Rather than being fired for an assault on his Hispanic foreman, he's sacked for clubbing an Anglo boss who uttered a racist slur against Hawaiians.

This uncomplicated hero is played by Owen Wilson, who may resemble a Leonard protagonist less than any previous actor to make the attempt. His Ryan is a likable goofball, talkative where he should be taciturn, amiable where he should be tough. A barroom altercation is illustrative. In the book, when the heavy threatens "If I didn't have someone with me, I'd pick you up and carry you out," Ryan's response is a terse, "No, you wouldn't." Wilson, by contrast, offers a self-deprecating babble: "You might have to, if Walter here keeps buying me beers, getting me all liquored up. I'm just trying to keep my wits about me." And then there's the surfing. Whereas the Ryan of the book is a baseball player, Wilson is a surfer, a point that is underlined by repeated interruptions of the movie to offer footage of Wilson (supposedly) surfing. These scenes serve no apparent purpose except to heighten the impression that Wilson may be a grown-up version of Jeff Spicoli.

If Wilson is a bit soft, his leading lady, Sara Foster, has a firmness one associates with ads for gym membership. When we are first introduced to her, she's sunbathing naked; subsequently, she wears short shorts, short skirts, tank tops, halter tops, and a litany of teeny bikinis. (One gets a glimmer of why the filmmakers moved the action from Michigan.) Indeed, in Foster the film elevates form over function to a degree that approaches philosophy. Not that she's allowed much in the way of function anyway. Far from the seductive sociopath of the novel, who shoots out neighbors' windows with a pistol and cripples fellow drivers by running them off the road, Foster's just a little naughty. She likes to sneak into houses and, yes, wants to steal all that money from her tycoon boyfriend.

In the book, the planned heist never really goes anywhere; the real "big bounce" turns out to be something more pointlessly homicidal. The movie, however, lacks faith in this gloomy ending, and so builds the theft up into a climax of unadulterated stupidity, featuring a previously unhinted-at conspiracy, a secret romance, and the arrival of Bebe Neuwirth just in time to collect her paycheck. The last 20 minutes of the movie resemble nothing so much as the multi-twisted ending of Wild Things, but without the nasty undercurrents and parodic excess that made that movie such a guilty pleasure. Rather, you feel the filmmakers were just trying to get out of the movie by the quickest, least-threatening route possible. They succeeded.

The Home Movies List:
More, more, Elmore

Mr. Majestyk (1974). A surprisingly decent Charles Bronson flick, in which His Ruggedness is a melon farmer at war with a Mafia hitman (played with hammy aplomb by The Godfather's Al Lettieri).

52 Pick-Up (1986). The best of the pre-Shorty movies, directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Roy Scheider as the not-at-all-helpless victim of a trio of porn blackmailers. Dark but enjoyable.

Get Shorty (1995). Coming on the heels of Pulp Fiction, this light classic confirmed Travolta's return to stardom. Danny DeVito is, as usual, a little tiresome, but Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, and especially Dennis Farina are all in top form. Notice also a bearded James Gandolfini as "Bear."

Jackie Brown (1997). Convinced of his near-magical power as a Star Re-Maker, Tarantino tried to do for Pam Grier what he'd done for Travolta, and failed badly. It's a shame, too. Despite being overlong, the movie has a lot of good moments, most of them involving Samuel L. Jackson.

Out of Sight (1998). The best of the bunch, and my vote for the most underrated movie of the 1990s. It's hard to remember that, pre-"J-Lo," there was once a promising actress named Jennifer Lopez. But there was, and this is her best work. One could make a case that the same is true for almost everyone involved in the film: Clooney, Rhames, Cheadle, Zahn, and director Soderbergh. Scott Frank's script is pitch perfect and—in stark contrast to The Big Bounce—brilliantly finesses the novel's downbeat ending.