"You know how many actors in LA want to be in an Elmore Leonard project?" asked Morgan Freeman on a recent episode of HBO "First Look," one of those cable shows where the studios pimp their upcoming releases. I can't answer that one, but I do know that since Leonard began publishing fiction 53 years ago, 20 of his 37 novels have been adapted for the movies or television. His stock in Hollywood really exploded in 1995, when Barry Sonnenfeld turned his hood-in-Hollywood comedy Get Shorty into a hit John Travolta vehicle. Two years later Quentin Tarantino adapted Rum Punch for his impressive Jackie Brown, and Steven Soderbergh scored again in 1998 with Out of Sight.
All three films took advantage of Leonard's swift and cagey plotting but also managed to tap into his characters' hard-boiled humor, a more elusive quality and one that makes his novels distinctive. Director George Armitage experimented with the same mix of violent crime and character comedy in Miami Blues (1990) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). This time around he's added a slick veneer of one-liners to Leonard's novel The Big Bounce, turning it into a tropical caper comedy, but the story has been so poked and prodded and spun around it barely knows how to end. It's as if a handful of movie stars wanted in on a Leonard project but discovered on the first day of shooting that the author, with the infallible instincts of a good second-story man, had slipped out the back way.
It's a shame, because The Big Bounce—Leonard's very first crime novel—is a sweet little noir with a sharper sense of cinema than the movie. Leonard began it in 1966, after a decade publishing westerns and a five-year break during which he'd supported his family writing industrial films and grade-school documentaries. Trying his hand at a new genre, he set the story in the present and close to his hometown of Detroit: his protagonist, a poor city kid named Jack Ryan, has washed out as a pro baseball player and drifted into a part-time career as a burglar. Working as a handyman at a small beach resort on Lake Saint Clair, Jack falls under the spell of a teenage femme fatale with plans for a big heist, while his tough but kindly boss, Walter Majestyk, offers him friendship and tries to straighten him out. Like most great noirs, the story is fueled by money, and Leonard's famously simple prose never prevents him from digging deep into the young thief as he ponders the tin paradise of middle-class morality.
The novel's opening is a grabber: "They were watching Ryan beat up the Mexican crew leader on 16mm Commercial Ektachrome. Three of them in the basement room of the Holden County courthouse: the assistant county prosecutor, who had brought the film; a uniformed officer from the sheriff's department operating the projector; and Mr. Walter Majestyk, the justice of the peace from Geneva Beach." Jack, along with migrants bused in from San Antonio, has been harvesting cucumbers, and a film crew making a documentary about migrant labor has captured him braining his boss with a softball bat following an argument. After they've watched the film and examined selected frames, the prosecutor asks Majestyk for his opinion. He replies, "I think he's got a level swing, but maybe he pulls too much."
The filmmakers probably weren't inclined to open with the hero fracturing a Mexican's skull, which is legitimate. But in addition to correcting the story's politics, he's transplanted it from gritty Detroit to the north shore of Oahu—the film opens on a Hawaiian paradise of surfers and manicured beaches. ("This movie has gotten in the way of a really great vacation," said Charlie Sheen on the HBO show, "and I'm pissed.") Jack, shorn of an unhappy childhood in a poverty-stricken family, is now an easygoing surfer dude played by Owen Wilson. After he's released from jail for beaning his crew boss (Vinnie Jones), he accepts a job keeping up a handful of beachfront vacation cottages owned by the district judge (played by Freeman, a casting coup that neatly reverses the racial polarity of the book's opening).
In the book Majestyk is the angel on Jack's shoulder; the devil on the other is Nancy, a small, devious brunette from Florida who's being kept on the side by the wealthy family man who owns the cucumber fields, Ray Ritchie. Hired as a babysitter, she came on to Ritchie and is now his "secretary," which entails sleeping with him and making parade appearances as "Miss Perky Pickle." She's now installed in his summer home in Geneva Beach and amuses herself by driving around and shooting out picture windows. Immediately hooked by this hot little number, Jack thinks, "He had never known a girl who lived with somebody....She should have blond hair and great big jugs and be taller and older and wear high heels." Lo and behold, in the movie she's played by Sara Foster, a tall, vapid blond making her movie debut after hosting a show on MTV (the promotional art for the movie helps out with the jugs).
Leonard has called Jack Ryan one of his favorite characters—he's likable and complex, an emotionally bruised young man who's none too bright and knows it, who's never been good at anything but baseball and breaking and entering, who's never had much money and craves the power and security it brings. He can't believe his parents were ever young lovers: "Something must have happened. Something, and he would bet anything it was because of money. Counting pennies to buy hamburger. Maybe that tightens you up and once it does, you stay tightened. His dad was different sometimes when they were alone. He would seem to know about things." Owen Wilson isn't a bad choice for the role—he gave a great performance as a young criminal in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket—but Jack's downbeat past has been erased, leaving plenty of room for Wilson's whining goofball persona.
As a kid in Detroit, Leonard devoured movies and realistic fiction (Remarque, Hemingway, Steinbeck, O'Hara), developing a great ear for talk and a striking sense of visual space. The Big Bounce was his first contemporary novel and the first to be conscious of cinema. He illustrates Jack's criminal mind-set by having him reference Stanley Donen's Charade: "You made up your mind you were going to be good at it and not panic. It was something you developed in your mind, a coolness. No, cooler than cool. Christ, everybody thought they were cool. It was a coldness you had to develop. The pro with icewater in his veins. Like Cary Grant. Pouring champagne for the broad or up on the rooftop and the guy with the steel hook instead of a hand coming at him, he's the same Cary Grant. No sweat. That was good when he threw the guy and as the guy fell his hook scraped down the metal slant of the roof, making sparks."
There's even a mildly postmodern scene in which Leonard incorporates Budd Boetticher's classic western The Tall T (1957), adapted from one of Leonard's western stories. Nancy visits Jack at the resort after dark, and they spy on Majestyk through his front window as he drinks beer, smokes a cigar, and watches the western on TV. Jack has seen the movie: "He edged close to the window and looked in, across the room, past Mr. Majestyk to Randolph Scott in the good hat that was curled just right in front." Walter hears something and turns around; Jack and Nancy duck. "Ryan stood in the dark with his back to the wall. He heard horses inside, the sound of their hooves fading away. There was no music or dialogue now. Something was about to happen." It's a memorable configuration—Nancy and Walter pulling at Jack from opposite directions. Nancy slips away, and Walter catches Jack outside the house, forcing him into some uncomfortable lies.
In the movie Jack and Nancy spy on Walter as he sits in his Hawaiian bungalow watching, for reasons I can't begin to fathom, the Chicago cable-access dance program "Chic-A-Go-Go." Equally mysterious is the new ending, which I'm about to give away (I think). Nancy talks Jack into ripping off $200,000 from a safe in Ritchie's beach house, but in truth Jack is being set up for the murder of Ritchie (Gary Sinise) by Nancy, Ray's drunken wife (Bebe Neuwirth), and the wife's lover—Walter. None of this makes much sense, and it inverts the relationship between Jack and Walter. But it squares with the filmmakers' desire to make a caper film, a crime subgenre that celebrates theft and stresses glamour over social realism. For Armitage this means epic waves, chicks in bikinis, snarky bongo-and-sax music, and a ludicrous climax that leaves Jack sitting in a limo with a woman on one arm and a bag of cash on the other. After reading the story Leonard had in mind, the only thing I really like about the movie is that it spoiled Charlie Sheen's vacation.