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The Lawman & the Weasel

Rude and crude with apologies to no one, Bulletproof is the sort of guilty pleasure that should be savored in a crowded theater on a Saturday night, with a giant tub of popcorn and a total lack of inhibition. This rambunctious little sleeper is the freshest, funniest action-buddy movie since 48 HRS. And if, like me, you thought this particular genre had nothing left to offer, you're in for the first pleasant surprise of the fall movie season.

Damon Wayans plays Jack Carter, an undercover cop who befriends a smalltime car thief, Archie Moses (Adam Sandler), while gathering evidence against the thief's occasional employer. Carter is working so far undercover that we don't know his real name isn't Rock Keats until nearly a half-hour into the movie. And when he finally does reveal himself, he does so in a way that will delight connoisseurs of obscure '70s movie trivia: "My name is Carter, Jack Carter." Michael Caine said exactly the same thing, in precisely the same hard-ass tone of voice, when he identified himself as a British mob enforcer during a key scene in Get Carter (1971). Of course, this may be just a coincidence. Or, what the hell, it may really be a tribute to the growly voiced comic who used to be a staple of The Ed Sullivan Show. But never mind: in-jokes are no less funny for being entirely unintentional.

Archie is a cunning little weasel, but he's basically harmless. Well, okay, as harmless as an elfin doofus can be while working part-time as a low-level supervisor for a major drug dealer. Archie really likes Rock, and feels betrayed when he discovers the guy's true identity. For his part, Rock -- er, that is, Carter -- feels even more betrayed when Archie accidentally shoots him during a police raid. But, thanks to the long arm of coincidence, and the shameless contrivances of screenwriters Joe Gayton and Lewis Colick, neither man is allowed to hold a grudge for very long.

Shortly after Carter recovers from a near-fatal head wound -- with the help, of course, of a beautiful physical therapist (Kristen Wilson) -- he is shipped off to Arizona to escort a fugitive back to Los Angeles. Naturally, the fugitive is Archie, and, just as naturally, he specifically asks for Carter as his personal escort. Archie has agreed to turn state's evidence against the drug dealer, Frank Colton (James Caan), a slickly folksy villain who maintains a respectable front as the owner of an auto dealership. (Caan is amusingly oily during Colton's homespun TV spots.) Even so, Archie refuses to think of himself as a fink. No, the only fink he knows is a guy named -- well, whatever his name is.

It comes as no surprise when Carter and Archie must join forces on the road back to L.A. in order to survive repeated attacks by the drug dealer's murderous henchmen. What is surprising is how effectively Bulletproof manages to recycle elements from a dozen or so other action-comedies without seeming like some generic direct-to-video production. The key ingredient in the mix is the percolating chemistry generated by Wayans and Sandler. They are perfectly matched opposites, dodging bullets and trading wisecracks with equal ferocity. Their foul-mouthed banter is raucously hilarious, especially during scenes in which Carter glowers, Archie whines and everyone else around them is firing weapons. When Sandler cuts loose with a serenely insane version of "I Will Always Love You," his character's idea of a brief homage to The Bodyguard, the lunacy reaches a level of inspiration that Eddie Murphy often achieved in the original 48 HRS. And Wayans' angry response to this excess is icing on the cake.

Sandler has a slight edge when it comes to the funny stuff, since his character is so unabashedly frank about his own shortcomings. ("Jesus!" he mutters in self-disgust after getting the worst of it in a one-on-one. "I gotta learn how to fight! This is pathetic!") But Wayans gets his fair share of laughs, too, without ever diminishing his character's high-testosterone machismo.

Director Ernest Dickerson (Juice) has recovered nicely from last year's Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight. In Bulletproof, he gives Wayans and Sandler all the room they need to develop an entertaining give-and-take, and he deftly places their tomfoolery in the context of a formulaic but involving chase story. Dickerson, who first gained attention as Spike Lee's cinematographer (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), makes only one serious mistake here: in the middle of a fantasy that is larger and funnier than life, he gives us too much dead-serious gunplay. If the violence weren't so needlessly graphic, Bulletproof might qualify as one of the year's very best comedies. But even with the occasional bloodshed, it's hugely enjoyable as a rock-the-house Saturday night movie.

Bulletproof.
Directed by Ernest Dickerson. With Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler.
Rated R.
85 minutes.

 
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