Undercover Brothers


He is not Jesus, but he has the same initials: Seven years into his rebirth as an American box-office draw, Jackie Chan plays an unwitting secret Asian man whose souped-up tux allows him to walk on water. Thanks to a nervous-system interface controlled by a seemingly endless wristwatch menu, he can also scale buildings, sub for James Brown, and level anything within kicking range. But after a summer in which Spider-Man and Undercover Brother‘s Chris Kattan did the first two, respectively, the only possible surprise in The Tuxedo would be an extended demonstration of what was once Chan’s trademark, the daffily choreographed kineticism forbidden of late by either his own age or the scruples of story editors.

Chan’s Jimmy Tong starts out as a love-starved cabbie (the soul patch and Hooters shirt don’t help) with a skill for breakneck urban driving; if The Tuxedo were a film by Chan’s silent-screen idol Harold Lloyd, it would be 1928’s Speedy. His innovative wheelwork brings him to the attention and the employ of Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs), a Bond figure so powerful a single page of his address book lists everyone from Schwarzkopf to Springsteen, so refined he collects samurai armor and rare bugs. Devlin’s incapacitation puts Jimmy in the role of superspy. Instead of Speedy‘s streetcar monopoly, The Tuxedo‘s overwrought plot involves a corporate-produced dehydrating bacteria that, if introduced into the world’s lakes, would allow a cabal of bottlers to exert sadistic market control.

Chinatown, with its waterworkings, dimly swims to mind, and an early scene in which Jimmy’s weary countrymen raise secret gates to let him bypass traffic is a knowing take on the stereotype of the mysterious ethnic enclave. Jennifer Love Hewitt, as a rule-book-wielding aqua-expert, departs from the loose-cannon sidekicks played by Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker in other Chan franchises, but the camera’s emphasis on her curves contradicts her geek persona. This bodily obsession pays off only when Chan, fending off an onslaught of thugs, uses a cup to shift a deadly insect around various locales on the Hewittian geography, in an entomological variant of the shell game.

At one point in The Tuxedo, Tong must coax industry secrets from the water baron’s horny fiancée, keeping up the bedroom patter without disrobing. My notes for a brief history of trouser abscondita contain this anecdote: For a scene in The Freshman (1925), in which the would-be BMOC’s basted tuxedo gradually falls apart, Harold Lloyd begged off the lowest-common denominator. “Everybody pulls their pants off in a scene,” he told his gagmen. “Let’s not do that old, corny, lose-your-pants situation.” But test screenings (of which Lloyd was a pioneer) were unsatisfactory. After adding the requisite kicker, the sequence drew the big laughs. “I had lost everything else and they wanted me to lose my pants,” Lloyd later mused.

Add to these annals Anthony and Joe Russo’s agreeably old-fashioned Welcome to Collinwood, which goes de-pantsing one better by getting rid of the undershorts as well. It’s a heist movie in a decidedly unglamorous Cleveland conurbation, an anti-Rififi in which nearly everybody loses their cool, not after the big score goes down but repeatedly and neurotically throughout.

The cast includes an assortment from the Soderbergh/P.T. Anderson axis—Luis Guzmán, William H. Macy, and George Clooney as a wheelchair-bound, tattooed ex-yegg named Antwerp—but the real show stealers are Isaiah Washington’s ascot-wearing knife aficionado and Michael Jeter as the human shambles whose absurd croak of a voice laces the louder banter with sublime banalities.

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