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MOVIE REVIEW

Even with Latifah driving, 'Taxi' doesn't get far

If you're an actor who doesn't rap as much as you used to, keeping it real must be a pain in the neck. How do Will Smith, Ice-T, Mos Def, and LL Cool J stay street while being rich enough to own several?

It's a classic question on the hip-hop quiz, but Queen Latifah doesn't seem to care. Since she cut back on her rapping, she's starred in a sitcom, hosted a talk show, received an Oscar nomination, done a number of forgettable, regrettable movies, MC'd VH-1's "Diva Duets," just released a fine standards album that makes Norah Jones seem like Courtney Love, and, this weekend, will host (and sing on) "Saturday Night Live."

If people think her idea of keeping it real means she's living in the Matrix, fine. She's also the star of the dollar-bin action sitcom "Taxi," and you're not. So there. "Taxi" casts Latifah as Belle Williams, a motormouth cabbie and NASCAR hopeful, and then prays for comedy. For the most part, she delivers. Latifah's smooth performances in "Living Out Loud" and "Chicago" suggested an heir of Pearl Bailey's dignified cool, but as her movies get broader and more culturally problematic, she gives me Whoopi Goldberg whiplash. Either way, she seems to be the only woman in Hollywood brave enough to be funny, even at the risk of clowning.

A remake of the 1998 French movie by Luc "The Fifth Element" Besson, "Taxi" requires Latifah to chauffeur cop Andy Washburn (Jimmy Fallon) around New York City at warp speeds to stop a series of crimes after he commandeers her cab. Fallon's character is a terrible driver, not to mention a terrible cop, which means Latifah is like the Greyhound bus of both the car and the police work: Most of the driving is left to her.

The chief pleasure in "Taxi," aside from Latifah's mugging and nonstop complaining, is a ludicrous plot involving a quartet of bank-robbing Brazilian models, led by Gisele Bundchen. They tote guns and dress up in crazy disguises. (My favorite robbery get-up is their Russian hip-hopper look.) At some point Latifah's souped-up yellow cab is pitted against Bundchen's crimson BMW, and a twinge of inspiration rushes through the movie. Bundchen, for her part, is terrible in a bold and wonderful way. She has one great line delivery ("Gimme da cash! No more games!") and a pit-stop scene with her partners that feels like an outtake from "Zoolander."

The movie is only sporadically up to something. It's nice to see a Hollywood picture carried by a black woman who isn't Halle Berry, especially one in which that woman chases down half-naked Glamazons. But too much of "Taxi" is just tired, particularly where Fallon is concerned. The dynamic between him and Latifah requires her to be smarter than he is, which, based solely on their time together, seems really easy. He does a lot of desperate pratfalls and dorky slapstick that's painfully unfunny, so much so that when Latifah tells him, "You try too hard," you want to say, "Amen."

Still, this is a movie that does inspire the occasional backhanded compliment. Fallon is least annoying when trying to nail the falsetto in Natalie Cole's "This Will Be," and all those car chases and ensuing pileups don't seem as much like a video game as they could. (Never mind that a few of those chases begin in midtown Manhattan and climax, inexplicably, on the streets of Los Angeles.) Tim Story ("Barbershop") directs with such apparent indifference to rhythm, geography, and sensible staging that there's reason to think Latifah's character isn't the only one with a hack license.

If reading this makes you want to run out and find the version Besson wrote, however, be aware it's just as dumb in French.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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