Recalling the 1997 film “Jackie Brown” — Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch”, but more notably an epic tribute to ’70s black exploitation flicks — I think the best scenes were between partners in crime Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro, respectively. A duo who were somewhere between two-bit and big-time, one slick and the other vaguely half-witted, their volatile relationship didn’t end particularly well, but their repartee gave a vital comic spark to the movie.
Long before “Rum Punch”, Leonard wrote a book called “The Switch”, which has now made it to the big screen via writer/director Daniel Schechter under the name “Life of Crime”. Played here by Mos Def (billed as yasiin bey) and John Hawkes, we center on Ordell and Louis back when they were strictly small-time crooks. Schechter’s at once familiar and refreshing heist-gone-awry flick finds its tone somewhere between “Ruthless People” and “Way of the Gun”, a much brisker, more straight-forward interpretation of the source material than Tarantino’s vision of its sequel.
As you’d expect from any Elmore Leonard story, the film is populated with characters ranging from morally ambiguous to outright sleazy. The former includes Ordell and Louis, as they kidnap Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of philandering real estate scammer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), thinking that they can get $1 million for her safe return.
Problem is that Dawson, a member of the latter camp, is off in the Bahamas with mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher), and has just dropped divorce papers in the mail. With a little coercing from Melanie, he figures he can kill two birds with one stone by not paying. Opportunity quickly turns into desperation for Ordell and Louis, who’ve chosen the home of an unstable, voyeuristic Nazi enthusiast named Richard (Mark Boone Junior of “Sons of Anarchy”) to stow Mickey, a suburbanite with a greater fortitude than her country-club exterior would suggest. As it becomes increasingly evident that their attempt to secure the money via long-distance phone call is going to be futile, Ordell hops on a plane to the Bahamas, and Louis stays behind with Mickey, where his conscience starts to get the better of him.
Writer/director Schechter’s script might sometimes comes across as a bromidic — mainly because the book it’s based on is almost four decades old — but “Life of Crime” is really all about the cast, and that seems to be where he’s putting his stock. This is one of Aniston’s best performances in recent memory, striking a chord between some interchangeable rom-com characters and a handful of surprisingly dramatic ones, specifically in films like “Derailed”, where she is multidimensional, unpredictable, and all around against-type.
But the film is strongest when focusing on our ill-prepared odd couple: Mos Def and John Hawkes bring a naturalism to the fumbling duo that is full of humor and subtle complexity. An African-American, Ordell is strangely unaffected by Richard’s Third Reich home decor, simply dismissing his bigotry as the product of a rough upbringing (but mostly because hey, business is business, and this guy serves a purpose, no matter how ignorant he is), but in retrospect, his lack of a reaction hints that there’s something more bubbling beneath the surface than we realize. And we discover that Louis is a more compassionate person than perhaps should be involved in the kidnapping business (it’s his first kidnapping, he later admits), as he begins to connect with Mickey.
The supporting cast all fit the bill. Tim Robbins plays the despicable, gin-soaked Frank with the sole purpose of making us hate him, and he does so rather effortlessly; Will Forte intermittently steps in and out as a painfully awkward guy whose infatuation with Mickey puts him smack in the middle of her abduction.
“Life of Crime” is a solid dark crime comedy with some good old-fashioned double-crosses, a few twists, and about as much hideous ’70s wallpaper as “American Hustle”. But Schechter seems less concerned about establishing an artistic style than he is in simply interpreting Leonard’s novel for a broad range of adult moviegoers; the plot is not exactly boilerplate, but it’s easy to follow, and terrific performances, particularly from Aniston, Mos Def and John Hawkes make for an engaging thriller with some genuinely funny moments.
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