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Sunny Noir

Elmore Leonard gets steady handling in “The Big Bounce.”

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Events are set in motion when Jack is nearly ejected from the island of Oahu when he bashes his construction boss Lou (Vinnie Jones, “Snatch”) with a baseball bat in self-defense. The surprising face smack sets up a movie’s worth of wry jokes, fistfights and eye candy of surfers on great waves, and pretty girls in bikinis.

The glossy romance of Leonard’s atheist world is generated by Nancy (Sara Foster), the comely mistress to evil construction company owner Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise). Jack’s bat incident frees him to accept a job offer by local judge Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman) and puts him in a position to exhibit his overwhelming desire for the nearby Nancy. Crewes effortlessly manipulates Jack’s weakness for pretty women into a $200,000 scam involving Nancy, Ray’s alcoholic wife Alison (Bebe Neuwirth) and Ray Ritchie’s cold hard cash.

Armitage (“Grosse Point Blank”) juggles Leonard’s criminals in paradise with quick timing and choice observations of their individual idiosyncrasies. “The Big Bounce” inhabits a film-noir pastiche that emphasizes the upbeat nature of Armitage’s vision of romantic noir done in color. Just as the Maltese Falcon was a lead-weighted story ruse to get the characters (and audience) hot and bothered, the $200,000 cash pile at stake here is just an excuse for Leonard’s misfits to get into bigger trouble.

At the beginning of the story, Jack gets out of jail and finds his harmonica has been stolen from his personal belongings. It’s a detail that will come up later as a defining possession that helps pin the tone of the movie at a conversational pitch. Leonard’s characters talk as well as Tarantino’s, but they’re not as proud of it and have less to prove. The happy cynicism here is off-handed yet to the point.

Morgan Freeman’s Walter becomes Leonard’s thematic voice in the story, as when he talks about God as “an imaginary friend for adults.” Freeman gives his standard dazzling performance by tweaking his delivery in ways that catch you rolling his words around in your head after he’s spoken them. Owen Wilson’s Jack is the quick-witted natural thief who needs to learn restraint, but is doomed to shed a lot more blood before that happens. It’s between Freeman and Wilson that the story keeps its comic momentum.

The Elmore Leonard cinematic tradition that runs through movies like “Get Shorty” and “The Big Bounce” is humor as the main event. Where other Leonard films like “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight” erred on the stately side, “Get Shorty” and “The Big Bounce” share an irreverence that sparkles with wit and precision.

There is an obvious exotic atmosphere in Oahu’s North Shore that “The Big Bounce” uses to divide its rapid-fire verbal delivery and stolen car chases. We never question the lasting shots of surfers riding the North Shore’s famous Pipeline as an essential aspect to the light-hearted crime thriller. Bad-people-doing-bad-things-in-a-lovely-environment is a hook that “The Big Bounce” puts to cool use without giving away the meaning of its fluffy title. There are still plenty of shadows creeping

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