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The Man

For all intents and purposes, The Man should have been yet another in a long line of unoriginal buddy films that follow a typical tried and recycled formula in which one semi-baked character schools another half-baked one-note character in the ways of the world.

You all know the drill well enough. Lethal Weapon meets 48 Hours meets Rush Hour by way of Beverly Hills Cop. Let’s not even mention the allusions to Downtown this film seemingly harbors, based on the trailer alone. Yeah, you read that correctly, Downtown.

That’s the way the system works. Ever wonder why nothing ever seems new in today’s studio system? It’s because nothing is. Everything has been done at one point or another. The formulas have been tested and they either work or they don’t, and the action buddy comedy is one of those genres that seemingly wins audiences over time and again.

The problem with The Man is not that it’s an old dog being trotted out for us to gawk at. The problem is that it’s an old dog that’s learned some new tricks, and damn if it doesn’t work in spite of itself.

Much of the credit goes to the casting of Eugene Levy and Samuel L. Jackson because, both being geniuses in their own right, putting them together is a comedic time bomb waiting to go off. Levy plays the straight man, Andy Fidler, a suburbanite clod who is content in his daily routine of family and dental supply sales. His career has led him to comfortable success, which has in turn steered him in the direction of big, bad Detroit, MI en route for a dental supply sales rep convention.

Before we get into the inevitable counter role portrayed by Jackson, let’s take a moment to focus in on Fidler, which is what the film chooses to do to great reward. Levy plays Fidler as a clod, but never stoops to the level of rendering him incompetent. Sure, he’s a boob, but he’s a maroon in the sense of a fish out of water. Surprisingly Levy refrains from the excessive use of pratfalls, awkward bumblings, and outrageous exaggerations he is most known for in films such as American Pie.

Instead, Levy shows us that Fidler is confident and capable, even if he is naïve to the ways of the street. The film does well to let audiences know that Fidler is not a one note joke; sure he’s funny, but we laugh in spite of him, not because he is outlandishly absurd.

Enter Jackson’s Derrick Vann, a walking amalgamation of several roles from Jackson’s career. Vann mostly resembles a cross between Jackie Brown’s Ordell Robbie, Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winfield, Shaft, and at one point Unbreakable’s Elijah Price, thanks to a cane.

He’s a hard-talking ATF agent whose mouth spews witticisms as quickly as he spouts vulgarities in a beautiful mix of the profane and the profound. Vann, we learn, is stirring up a pot of trouble while investigated the simultaneous death of his crooked partner and the theft of a cache of weapons from a Federal building.

Naturally, Vann’s association with the corrupt dead man has placed him under the suspicious eye of an unnamed Internal Affairs agent played by Miguel Ferrer. The trailer for the film does an excellent job setting up the humdrum circumstances which lead to intersection of Fidler and Vann’s individual walks of life, but it is what the film chooses to do with this setup that makes the whole thing click so neatly.

Case in point, we know Fidler will somehow become crucial to Vann’s investigation, but what we don’t know going in is that something bigger is being examined on screen than merely a buddy gun heist bust arc. Fidler, we learn, is an eternal optimist. He innately trusts humanity nearly to a fault, and proudly exclaims that he’s “never met someone he didn’t make friends with eventually.”

Vann, on the other hand, is an eternal pessimist, cynically insisting that people are only out for themselves and that trusting others only leads to “getting dead.” Sure, this seems like a given considering the genre in question, but what makes it more fun is that director Les Mayfield treats a conversation over a hamburger with more importance than he does a car chase or a joke at the expense of a feeble character.

Sure, the things said during the conversation are hilarious thanks to the expert delivery and timing of Levy and Jackson, but it is refreshing to see touches of character study at work here.

Whenever a family oriented event rears its head in a film such as this, it usually means that somewhere down the line there will be a race to attend, or the reluctant family member, who is often at risk of absence due to dedication to their job, will happen upon attending within the course of doing their job.

In this case, we have a dance recital, and the reluctant yet dedicated family member is Vann. Instead of fabricating a scenario that allows Vann to attend thanks to a nearby meeting place to exchange guns and payment, or stopping the criminal in enough time to catch the final act of his daughter’s performance, the film manages to find a way that allows the plot to progress, Fidler to gain some recognition, and Vann to attend without feeling forced or unnatural.

The third act manages to remain interesting, even if it eventually boils down to an aggressive firefight and massive gunplay. Yes, this is prerequisite, but the real showdown takes place prior, when Fidler and Vann are pitted against one another and each one’s initial ideologies are put to test.

Sometimes, in life, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.


Mario Anima

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