In a 1930s New York nightclub, fast-talking hustler Ray Gibson's (Murphy) attempts to fleece naive bank teller Claude Banks (Lawrence) leaves both men paying off a debt to fearsome club owner Spanky (Rick James) with a bootlegging run down south to Mississippi.
It's very possible that for some, another film with Eddie Murphy acting up in old man prosthetics may be just too stiff a sentence to contemplate. But the truth is that in his post-Nutty Professor renaissance, Murphy is scoring consistently, and although straight cop actioner Metro landed with something of a dull thud, this second departure from the basic pratting about of Dolittle, Holy Man and The Nutty Professor displays a largely untapped talent for the more dramatic kind of role.
Murphy and Lawrence get in some scrapes on a bootlegging run in 1930's Mississippi Wrongly convicted of murder, the pair are banged up in plantation-style prison, and though failures come and go, their appetite for increasingly elaborate escape schemes never wanes.
The expertly created progressive-ageing make-up is not, in this instance, to provide cheap slapstick relief or to cut Murphy loose, but the logical result of an ambitious storyline which follows Ray and Claude for the best part of 60 years. To get this far and still have the viewer give a monkey's, of course, there needs to be a believable relationship, and it works here because there's no real distinction between the straight man and the foil, which is probably why Lawrence records something very near a career best.
Murphy's irrepressible personality will, naturally, have a part in every role he plays (why cast him otherwise?), but his too is a turn of depth and maturity devoted to this movie's character, not the latest aggrandisement of the topsy turvy Murphy phenomenon. And there's nicely understated support work from Bokeem Woodbine, Guy Torry and Ned Beatty as the hard but caring warden.
Forget the negative word of mouth, the writing here is sharp, Demme's direction controlled and the performances solid. A mild success.