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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Comic chemistry can't save "The Man"

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Man," with Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy, Luke Goss, Miguel Ferrer. Directed by Les Mayfield, from a screenplay by Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman and Stephen Carpenter. 83 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, rude dialogue and some violence. Several theaters.

The pairing of Eugene Levy and Samuel L. Jackson isn't quite the lightning strike sparked by Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor when they shared the screen a few decades ago. But in the realm of interracial buddy movies, the chemistry between these two gifted actors goes a long way in plugging the shortcomings of a script in need of doctoring to brush up the laughs and put a shine on the dialogue.

The serviceable plot of "The Man" is based on that old chestnut of mistaken identity. Hitchcock loved it as the root of genuine suspense, but it's an all-too-facile device for a screwball action comedy. Andy Fidler (Levy) is a suburban Wisconsin dental-supply salesman who goes to big bad Detroit (played by Toronto) to deliver the keynote speech at a convention filled with like-minded milquetoast stuffed shirts whose lives are devoted to the tools of modern dentistry (Andy has a state-of-the-art dental suite in his home bathroom).

Jackson is Derrick Vann, a rogue special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who's deep in a case involving hundreds of high-powered weapons stolen from the armory of his own headquarters. Vann's partner — found executed the morning after — was the inside man on the job, and an Internal Affairs agent (played with typically unlikable smarm by Miguel Ferrer) is convinced Vann is dirty, too.

When Vann tries to make an undercover deal to recover the weapons and catch the thieves, Andy pops up at exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Since the bad guys think Andy is the high-powered buyer, Vann is forced to abduct him as a "partner" in clearing the case and his name.

Both Levy and Jackson have a knack for being cast as type, and the strengths of "The Man" come from letting those types clash in grating proximity. This happens mostly in the front seat of Vann's Cadillac, a pimped ride if ever there was one (he uses his hydro-hopped wheels to loosen up suspects under interrogation).

With his modernized "Pulp Fiction" Jheri curls, scarred face and black-suited swagger, Jackson is clearly riffing on the charisma that most of us recognize as the basis of his screen persona. Levy matches him mug-for-mug with the dorky, clueless shtick he's cultivated since his days with "SCTV" and subsequent movie career. Andy jabbers on with pop-eyed white-bread sincerity while Vann seethes in hoodlike outrage over a foil that he needs more than he knows, and in more ways than one.

Even though the two stars make a dynamic team, the bantering interaction often comes off flat. There ought to be more jokes that exploit the effortless rapport Levy and Jackson establish from the start. If the script had a run-through by someone with an ear more attuned to improvisation, maybe it wouldn't have needed to rely on a depressing running gag about Andy's flatulence (which got the biggest laughs at a preview screening). Scarier villains might also have helped. Former British pop star Luke Goss and his fashion-model henchmen are hardly menacing enough to be organized crime kingpins.

At a zippy 83 minutes (including an ingenious title sequence that sets up the crime), "The Man" could be a lot worse. But with this kind of talent, it should be a lot better.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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