The Man isn’t so much a movie as a parody of one, the kind of thing people in movies about the movie business pitch as outrageous, inept ideas when a director goes for the cheap and quick giggle. Only in movies like The Player or Bowfinger or Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture would some schmuck float the notion of pairing Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy, with the former as an angry Detroit cop out to avenge the death of his crooked partner and the latter as a Midwest dental-equipment salesman in town to make a speech who winds up riding shotgun with Jackson. God knows that would never happen at a real movie studio in the real world. No way, unh-unh. Except, of course, just this one time.
What’s truly galling about The Man is how its creators, and former SCTV cast member Eugene Levy, come from backgrounds that would certainly suggest they know better than to make such dreck. Indeed, this is the very kind of lame-brained folly Levy and his SCTV cohorts used to mock on their old show; now it’s how he makes rent. One of its writers came from Saturday Night Live, though Margaret Oberman was there during its bleak early 1980s period. Her collaborator, actor Jim Piddock, has had roles in two of Guest’s movies, including Best in Show, in which he was the straight-faced commentator sitting alongside fractured Fred Willard. But also included on Piddock’s résumé are two thrillers he penned in the early 1990s, starring the likes of Jim Belushi and James Remar, which suggest Piddock’s irony meter is not so finely tuned as his Best in Show credit would suggest.
One can only imagine Oberman and Piddock’s pitch to New Line Cinema executives, which surely mentioned how The Man was going to be 48 Hrs. meets Lethal Weapon; even its dialogue, including a line in which Jackson tells Levy, “We are not partners … you’re my bitch, my own personal bitch,” is dreadfully stale. Yet one could easily substitute any number of mismatched interracial cop-buddy pictures in their place, including The Man director Les Mayfield’s last mismatched interracial buddy pic, 1999’s Blue Streak, which starred Martin Lawrence as a thief posing as a cop and Luke Wilson as his gaga partner and did decent box office and garnered inexplicably kind reviews.
Alas, it feels more like a redo of National Security with Lawrence and Steve Zahn: Both movies share a plot point (the chasing of a bad guy responsible for the death of a partner) and the distressing appearance that they were made without a director on the set or a finished script anywhere at all. It also tastes a bit like The Man Who Knew Too Little, in which an idiot is mistaken for a bad man by the villains, but it has not an ounce of the joy to be found in that Bill Murray movie. The Man reeks instead of something that has been sitting on a shelf since the 1980s, so drab and lifeless is every frame.
For Jackson, the role of federal agent Derrick Vann is a riff on a riff he has strummed a dozen times before. He offers but the tiniest variation on the roles he played in both xXx movies, John Singleton’s sloppy Shaft remake, and SWAT, not to mention the lethargic, joyless parody-of-a-parody Loaded Weapon 1, in which he took the Danny Glover role and was out to avenge the death of his partner (played in that film by Whoopi Goldberg). Jackson — so brilliant in Jungle Fever that they had to create an award for him at Cannes, the neglected centerpiece of Pulp Fiction, the broken man at the center of Unbreakable — seldom acts anymore. He’s all shtick now, a messy mélange of swagger and bluster and profanity — a one-note joke that elicits only the groans of boredom, his and ours. When he tells She Hate Me‘s Anthony Mackie, wasted here in the role of lowly snitch, that he’s “gonna beat [him] like a runaway slave,” you can hardly contain a shudder. Jackson, and the audience, deserve better.
But Levy, so wonderful in all of Christopher Guest’s movies, is no more picky an actor than Jackson. It’s impossible to rank The Man on a filmography that also includes Like Mike, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harold Met Lloyd, and New York Minute, among the many illicit paychecks he has collected since retiring Bobby Bittman, Sid Dithers, and Yosh Schmenge from his repertoire. His Andy Fidler is never even a person, merely a cardboard cutout we’re supposed to laugh at as he stands at his bathroom sink, cleaning his teeth with dentist’s-office equipment.
Levy tries to make something of the role — if nothing else, the man is game for anything, the result of years working in ensemble sketch comedy that demanded he make a lasting impression in a few minutes of screen time — but the movie never fails to humiliate him. (Levy is the butt of two fart jokes, appropriate for shit like this.) Even when he gets a centerpiece moment, his delivering his blockbuster speech to a convention of dentists, it lasts only a few seconds and winds up nothing more than a standard salesman’s pitch. Like everything else about The Man, It’s as dry as dentures in the summer sun.