The Big Bounce, starring Owen Wilson, is a remake of a lousy 1969 movie starring Ryan O'Neal, adapted from Elmore Leonard's first foray into loopy crime fiction after his early run of Western-themed yarns. And as such, the new comedy caper had pretty much nowhere to bounce but up. I just didn't expect it to bop.
That it does is due in good part, of course, to Leonard's trademark bunco scramble of double-crossing the two-bit double-crossers who traditionally brighten the author's day. But this short, riffy redo -- the whole game is set up and knocked down in 84 minutes, nutty late-'60s-style brassy titles, theme music, and all -- owes as much to the subtly subversive, loosey-goosey direction of director George Armitage (''Grosse Pointe Blank''), and even more to the jazz-jam performances of its surprising cast.
Wilson is Jack Ryan, scroungeabout drifter and amiable slouch, whose shenanigans have been moved (wisely, from a bikinis-on-parade point of view) from the book's Michigan to the warm and sunny Hawaiian island of Oahu. While looking for a good con, a good fling, or a little of both, Jack attracts the attention of a laid-back local district judge (Morgan Freeman). He also ruffles the feathers of his slimy real estate developer boss, Ray (Gary Sinise), and Ray's wormy right-hand man (Charlie Sheen). And he falls, in a trouble-meets-trouble way, for Nancy Hayes (model-turned-bikini-parading actress Sara Foster), an armful of temptation and Ray's mistress, who lures Jack into a plot to steal the boss' dough.
The plot fronds (in a script by Sebastian Gutierrez, who also went to the B-movie well for ''Gothika'') weave together like the brim of a cheap raffia sun hat, loose and fraying. The what-me-worry slapdashery of the story, meanwhile, brings out the best in after-hours ease of performance, especially from Wilson, whose semistoned ooze has never been funnier or in better blend with the rest of his cast. Too often the actor's surfer-tinted drollery is set against the frantic tempo of a cymbal clanger like Jackie Chan or Eddie Murphy, and the two styles don't so much mesh as mash. But here, especially with Freeman as a sly cat and Sheen embodying a resentful weasel, Wilson has perfected his knuckleball delivery, and his personification of bleached-blond slacking. (His tousled hairstyle has now entered Meg Ryan territory.) He's found a place for himself, not among opposites, but among experienced actors who have fun playing at Wilson's same no-sweat pace; there's not a pro among them -- not Freeman (taking it nice and easy) or Sheen, or bonus bit players like Bebe Neuwirth, Willie Nelson, or Harry Dean Stanton -- who would ever need to break into a trot, let alone a Jackie Chan-ish gallop, to get a laugh.
And Armitage knows this. ''The Big Bounce'' is shot in the tawdry fantasy style of its cusp-of-the-'70s heritage, all beach houses, sunsets, and vistas of temptation. It's served whipped and diced as casually as guacamole dip, tart and tasty and good with a couple of cold drinks. By not trying too hard, this remake of a dumb movie has got spring in its step. The bounce is on us.