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Jamie Foxx goes undercover in the moody but rote Vegas cop thriller ‘Sleepless’

By Justin Chang Los Angeles Times

More honesty in criticism is one of my New Year’s resolutions, so here goes: “Sleepless,” a Las Vegas-set cop thriller starring Jamie Foxx, actually put me to sleep for a few minutes. Fortunately, like the character who bumps his head and almost drowns in a women’s spa, I wasn’t unconscious for long. OK, I missed the scene in which Foxx hides 25 kilos of cocaine in a men’s lavatory, but the exposition in this movie – even when yelled over the heavy drone of dance music and gunfire – is thick and repetitive enough to keep you from getting too lost.

Or, for that matter, too engaged. Don’t get me wrong: “Sleepless” is far from a terrible movie, even if it is being dumped on the second weekend of January without advance media screenings (which is almost the theatrical equivalent of hiding it in a men’s lavatory). It’s nice to see Foxx in what you might call a change-of-pace role, though given his too-long absence from movies since the ill-fated 2014 remake of “Annie,” the mere sight of him on a movie screen now qualifies as a change of pace.

Director Baran bo Odar orchestrates the smashing of bodies and automobiles with a moody, Michael Mann-esque panache, often cutting away to aerial establishing shots that make the Strip look like a shimmering nocturnal jewel box. But all that glitters is not gold, and at a certain point, Odar’s intense atmospherics – amplified by the throbbing bass notes of Michael Kamm’s heavy, percussive score – start to feel like the work of a filmmaker on genre autopilot. A stylish surface goes only so far to disguise the fact that we’re being sold some pretty cut-rate goods.

This is less a criticism than an observation. The movie is an English-language remake of a 2011 French thriller called “Sleepless Night,” but even if you haven’t seen that earlier picture (more honesty: I haven’t), you may detect smudges of similarly gritty, adjectivally titled shoot-’em-ups such as “Taken” and “Waist Deep,” each of which centers around a father going to extreme lengths to rescue his kid.

“Sleepless” presents a similarly reckless scenario of child endangerment, one that unfolds over the course of one long day and night. Foxx plays Vincent Downs, a Vegas detective deeply ensnared in the city’s criminal underworld. When he and his partner, Sean Cass (T.I.), steal a drug stash from a powerful crime boss, a nasty chain of events is set in motion, starting with the kidnapping and ransom of Vincent’s 16-year-old son, Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson) by a wealthy casino owner, Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney).

Rubino serves as a slick, sinister middleman between Vincent and the crime boss’ son, Rob Novak (a freaky Scoot McNairy), the kind of unnerving psychopath who likes to grab guys by the testicles and sever his relatives’ tongues for fun. Complicating matters further is another cop, Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan), who works for internal affairs and is convinced that Vincent is a dirty cop, though whether he’s really corrupt or simply deep undercover doesn’t remain a mystery for long.

Everything comes violently to a head at Rubino’s casino, where Vincent tries to bargain for Thomas’ survival, keep his ex-wife (Gabrielle Union) in the dark about their son’s whereabouts, and stay one step ahead of his pursuers on both sides of the law. The scuffles that ensue double as both a study in action-movie kinesis and a critique of Sin City decadence. Zones of relaxation and leisure – a mood-lit sauna, a luxury hotel suite – are soon covered in blood and shattered glass. Stairwells and parking structures become grisly obstacle courses, all of which Vincent has to navigate while nursing a stab wound thoughtfully inflicted by one of Rubino’s men in the opening stretch.

The movies haven’t really known what to do with Foxx since 2004, a breakthrough year that earned him an Oscar win for “Ray” and a second nomination for “Collateral.” He is a superb actor but not, as experience has shown, a natural-born action hero. That let him down in Quentin Tarantino’s antebellum revenge fantasy “Django Unchained,” where his tight-lipped lead turn was upstaged by his more garrulous costars. But “Collateral,” in which Foxx played an ordinary fellow caught up in extraordinary circumstances, exploited this ostensible shortcoming brilliantly; his utter lack of preparedness for the long night ahead of him made for a terrific rooting interest.

Another long night awaits Foxx’s character in “Sleepless,” and though he goes through the knife-waving, pistol-whipping motions with committed intensity, the role is too blandly conceived for him to find any fresh edges or hit any deeper notes. The pleasure of seeing him back on-screen is reason enough, perhaps, for this sleek, superficial movie to exist; now he just needs the kind of material that will jolt him and his audience awake.

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