Some are characterizing “Life of Crime” as a prequel to the great “Jackie Brown.” The new film, based on crime king Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel “The Switch,” centers on two characters featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film (which also was based on a Leonard book, “Rum Punch”).
Aside from sharing the characters of Louis Gara and Ordell Robbie — played by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively, in Tarantino’s acclaimed film — “Life of Crime” is no prequel. The events of the two tales are completely unrelated, and the new Louis and Ordell, as portrayed by John Hawkes and Mos Def (who is now calling himself Yasiin Bey), register less indelibly on our senses than they do in “Jackie Brown.”
That’s no slight to either actor, both of whom do an adequate job of bringing to life the characters that they have been given. More inept than desperate, they’re a source of mild, if inconsistent, amusement. But the story, adapted for the screen and directed by Daniel Schechter (“Supporting Characters”), feels noticeably sluggish and spiritless compared with Tarantino’s film. As a result, the two main characters in “Life of Crime” suffer, coming across as anemic versions of themselves — or at least the “selves” that we remember.
“Life of Crime” concerns the kidnapping of a crooked businessman’s wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), by Louis and Ordell. They are aided in their plot by a racist, neo-Nazi nutjob (Mark Boone Junior), whose role is mainly as a comic foil. The fact that Ordell is black and Mickey is Jewish is mined for laughs that never really materialize.
You want irony? How about the fact that Mickey’s husband (Tim Robbins) doesn’t really want his wife back, seeing as he is involved with another woman (Isla Fisher) and has just filed for divorce. So much for ransom.
This setup could — and, by rights, should — generate some of the antic criminality that Leonard is famous for. But Schechter’s slackly spun tale proceeds with little urgency. Apart from a bit of suspense generated by Boone’s character, who is both violently and sexually unhinged, there never seems to be terribly much at stake. Louis even starts to develop feelings for Mickey, which, while sweet, doesn’t make for the most compelling drama — or comedy.
That said, there are some giggles to be had in the visuals, which subtly evoke the film’s late-’70s setting. The flared trousers, embarrassing hairdos and giant sunglasses alone are worth a smile, even if the use of a Nixon Halloween mask during the kidnapping comes across as a heavy-handed attempt to evoke the period. Will Forte, sporting a porn-star ’stache and long sideburns, is amusing enough as a man with a crush on Mickey, but that relationship, like most relationships in the film, doesn’t really go anywhere.
“Life of Crime” feels like a rambling car ride through the countryside with friends. The scenery is great, and the passengers are diverting, but you keep wondering where the driver is headed.
That’s why it’s such a surprise when the film manages to pull off a great twist ending. “Life of Crime” may be no prequel, but in its last few seconds, the kicker makes it feel like the movie is just getting started.
R. At West End Cinema. Contains crude language, sex, nudity, drug use and some violence.