A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"Bait" is a deadpan action comedy with a little Hitchcock, a little Bond and a lot of attitude. It's funny and clever, and it grows on you, especially with the tension between Jamie Foxx's trash-talking thief and David Morse's monomaniacal federal agent. It's one of those movies where you start out thinking you've seen it all before, and the longer it runs, the less you've seen before. There's even an effective use of the exhausted old Red Digital Readout gambit.
The movie opens with the high-tech robbery of $42 million in gold bouillon from the Federal Reserve in New York. Two guards are executed. The mastermind is Bristol (Doug Hutchison), a genius computer hacker but a poor judge of men, who unwisely entrusts the getaway truck to a slob partner who drives off without him. The feds nab the partner, and he's interrogated by the hard-boiled U.S. Treasury agent Clenteen (David Morse). The guy keeps asking for a doctor, but Clenteen doesn't get the message until another agent (David Paymer) comments, "I don't think he's kidding." The getaway driver is dead. That leaves both the feds and the hacker desperate to find out where the gold is hidden. One man may know: Alvin Sanders (Jamie Foxx) shared the same prison cell with the dead man and may have learned something. Clenteen devises a diabolical scheme. He will implant Alvin with a miniature audio and tracking chip, allowing agents to eavesdrop on every word and follow every move. He'll be bait to lure Bristol--and then the feds will pounce.
This is all setup for a movie that is funny in an oblique, underplayed sort of way. It's kidding itself but doesn't always admit it. It doesn't go for obvious laughs, like a Martin Lawrence movie might have, but uses Foxx's wisecracking ad-lib style to create Alvin as a character who gets more complicated the more time we spend with him. In his opening scenes, as Alvin bungles the theft of a shipment of prawns, I was writing "condescending" in my notes: He was coming across as a broad urban stereotype, not too smart. Then it became clear that Alvin uses his persona as a shield, a weapon of humor to protect and deflect. By the end of the movie, when he sets up his own sting to find out who's following him, we're not surprised.
A lot of the best scenes involve federal agents in a monitoring post, eavesdropping on Alvin's life, his conversations, his problems with his girlfriend (Kimberly Elise) and the trouble his brother (Mike Epps) gets him in. This isn't reality TV but reality radio; the agents start to like Alvin--all except for the hard-edged Cleeteen, who was born without a sense of humor. Alvin's brother involves him in a stolen car scam, and the feds panic that their bait will be back in jail before he can catch the fish. They try to control his life without letting him know they exist, arranging for him to come into money--in scenes that Foxx milks for all they're worth.