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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005

Supercharged export can't go the distance


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: "Taxi NY"
Director: Tim Story
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Taxi" is set in the present century, but there's a late-20th century feel to it, simply because it's a movie that thinks -- no insists -- that car chases are exciting and really, really new.

News photo
Queen Latifan and Jimmy Fallon in "Taxi"

A remake of a Luc Besson movie (of the same title), "Taxi" overdoes it on the car stunts and pile-ups, even more so than its predecessor, and that's saying a lot. In France, the audience loved Besson's "Taxi" and the director was praised for combining snazzy action with American-style, light-hearted humor. It helped too, that the jokes were in French -- they just sound funnier -- and the characters were a likable lot.

This remake of "Taxi" had hoped to duplicate the buoyancy of the original but somehow nothing gets much of a lift; it just crashes. That includes the hero, a guy so grating you want to sprinkle him over a plate of pasta. He's Jimmy Fallon, who made a name for himself on "Saturday Night Live." Indeed, many a fine comedian has used "SNL" as a launchpad for a Hollywood career, but in Fallon's case the decision seems a bit premature. Shouldn't he have waited?

You also have to wonder whether Luc Besson, credited as one of the writers and as a producer, didn't get the overwhelming urge to kick a few butts, scream "merde!" and stalk off to a cafe or something? Such questions assail one with alarming frequency -- and it's hard to concentrate when cars are perpetually, tiresomely, screeching and crashing while Fallon assembles his features into an expression of goofy terror.

It's a pity because the opening scenes of "Taxi" promise so much more: a New York bike messenger races through Macy's, then careens down subway steps, ricocheting off walls and zipping to the opposite platform. The sequence dazzles with its speed and camera work, but unfortunately it's over too soon. When the cyclist takes off her helmet, she turns out to be a feisty woman named Belle (Queen Latifah). Belle has been saving up for a taxi driver's license while customizing her own yellow cab; her ultimate dream is to be a race car driver.

This is her last day as a bike messenger. When she takes her place behind the steering wheel, the first person to flag her down happens to be NYPD cop Andy Washburn (Fallon) who, in one stroke, could redefine the word "incompetent." Fallon has a deep fear of driving (don't ask), but he must get to a crime scene immediately. "You jumped in the right cab today," Belle tells him as she switches on the various gadgets (jutting metallic wings, self-inflating supertires, etc.) of her supercab, a vehicle straight out of an '80s Bond movie.

Latifah deserves better roles than this predictable combo of fast-taking sistah and dependable mama looking out for a whiny white boy. It's sad to think that after her thunderclap performance in "Chicago" she's been gradually dumbed down and slenderized in the Hollywood Machine; it's as if every role since then has been designed to make her ordinary (see "Bringing Down the House"). In "Taxi" her once magnificent presence seems to have been shrunk 50 percent: She's dressed in boring clothes that do nothing to enhance her brass and sass and, after that brief bicycle scene, she's sitting and driving most of the time.

Still, the movie needs her like a beach needs a lifeguard -- you may want to drown yourself before it's over. The clueless Andy, who doesn't know the first thing about police work, immediately latches on to her aura of security, and the two unwittingly pair up to catch an exotic band of bank robbers. (Naturally, they have a series of high-tech, snazzy getaway cars to match Belle's.)

The criminals themselves also offer plenty to look at -- they're all gorgeous leggy blondes from Brazil (ringleader Vanessa is played by supermodel Gisele Bundchen) who seem to be constantly changing into one skimpy Prada ensemble after another. You'd think the microminis would be a hindrance when conducting armed robbery, but the ladies are completely unfazed. When Andy's boss Marta Robbins (Jennifer Esposito) points her gun and yells, "Get down!," Vanessa coolly replies: "In this skirt? I think that will be difficult."

Moments like this provide some relief from the dreck of car crashes and those obligatory scenes of cars speeding down streets at 300 kph. According to the production notes, a three-minute scene involving multiple car stunts can cost over $500,000. It looks like all of director Tim Story's efforts went into coordinating those expensive scenes and that he let the rest of the film (like plot coherency) take care of itself. In his previous film, "Barbershop," Story showed a flair for dialogue and getting close to his characters. All he seems to care about in "Taxi" are cars that look cool and cars that go boom.

Luc Besson penned the screenplay for the original "Taxi" in 30 days while waiting for the "Fifth Element" to get the go-ahead. He has said in interviews how surprised he was that people liked it. For Besson, it was probably an exercise that was only slightly strenuous, certainly not something that made him sweat. But in this U.S. remake, the director and cast throw themselves into frenzied effort, before running out of gas. The sad thing is, so little of it seems to have paid off.

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