Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Legacy' (2012)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Thanks to the existence of Jason Bourne, The Bourne Legacy has gone from the future of the Bourne franchise to a curious footnote, a detour in which producers briefly brought in an alternate protagonist when star Matt Damon declined to return as Jason Bourne. Legacy stars Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, another enhanced super-soldier being hunted by his former handlers, but despite its often painfully detailed connections to Bourne's adventures, it's essentially a separate story, one that could easily have been made on its own with some very minor tweaks. That might actually have improved it, since all that director and co-writer Tony Gilroy (a co-writer on all the previous Bourne movies) accomplishes by constantly mentioning Bourne is to make his movie and its hero look worse in comparison.

One of the great things about The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (and to a lesser extent The Bourne Identity) is the way they jump right into the action, with Bourne in motion and ready to confront his enemies. Over the course of three movies, the original trilogy reveals more about Bourne's background, but that's never the main focus of any of the movies, and the details remain minimal. When he says "I remember everything" in Ultimatum, the audience has only seen a small portion of the events that he's recovered. In contrast, Legacy is crammed full of back story, with a narrative that focuses almost entirely on the kind of experiences that Bourne had before we met him in the previous movies. Cross is still in training as an agent of the military-sponsored program known as Outcome; he has all his memories and is very much aware of the program's purpose and structure, even if he's been kept in the dark about some of the details and logistics.

As such, the first hour or so of this overly long movie (at 135 minutes, it's easily the longest in the series) is devoted to getting Cross into a place where he has to go on the run and escape from his superiors, and for an action movie, Legacy contains very little action. There are really only two big action set pieces, one around the middle when Cross rescues scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) from a hit squad sent to kill her at her home, the other at the movie's climax, as Cross and Marta are fleeing from the series' latest version of the fellow super-assassin activated to take down the hero. That last sequence, a motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila, is actually quite exciting and well-crafted, and it dials down the ridiculous, over-the-top mayhem of the car chases in the previous two movies. It's one of the strongest action sequences in the whole series, but it comes too little, too late, at nearly two hours into the running time.

Taking a cue from Ultimatum, parts of Legacy take place in between scenes of the previous movie, and Ultimatum supporting players Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Scott Glenn each show up for a single, presumably contractually obligated scene (only Glenn actually interacts with any of the main characters from this movie). Bourne's name also gets mentioned frequently, and the idea is that because of his efforts at exposing the CIA's secret training programs (Treadstone and Blackbriar), this mostly unrelated military-backed private program must be shut down. Edward Norton plays the latest version of the ruthless bureaucrat determined to stamp out a rogue agent, and aside from being younger than previous versions played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, etc., he's pretty much the same character.

It makes sense not to have Cross as a carbon copy of Bourne, but by showing so much of his training and enhancements, the movie basically turns him into a superhero. There's no espionage in this movie, no secret government missions. It's just a rogue experimental subject being hunted down. Weisz gets probably the biggest role for any woman in the entire series, and she mostly holds her own, but Gilroy can never make Cross and Marta's escape feel like it matters even half as much as anything Bourne has done. After the great chase in Manila, the ending is an anticlimax; there's no catharsis or final confrontation, just Cross and Marta slipping away on a boat while all of their evil adversaries appear to remain in power. Just before Jason Bourne was announced, Universal had green-lit another Aaron Cross movie, but even with Bourne's return, it's hard to imagine why anyone would care to see the further adventures of this guy.

My final Bourne rankings (after seeing Jason Bourne):

The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Ultimatum
Jason Bourne
The Bourne Legacy

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Like The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy wasn't necessarily conceived as part of a franchise, and its ending provides a nice bit of closure for Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), as well as some hope for his continued alliance with Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Like Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum then ends up undoing a lot of the resolution of the previous movie, and it actually does that in a sort of devious way, setting the majority of its action in between the final two scenes of Supremacy. It's the kind of blatant retcon that I would expect more out of the Saw series, but even though it stretches credulity at times, I think it mostly works. It recontextualizes Supremacy's final scene into something much more tense, which is a bit of a shame, but it also then gives Bourne a more definitive ending afterward (which, of course, will be undone again by Jason Bourne).

This time around there are no external storylines about foreign targets that the CIA wants to take down; it's just Bourne and his quest for the truth, which puts him in the crosshairs of the series' latest evil, sniveling bureaucrat, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). Luckily, Landy is also back, and her antagonistic relationship with Vosen is a highlight of the movie, almost making her into a secondary protagonist. Also making a welcome return with an expanded role is Julia Stiles' Nicky Parsons, getting her greatest amount of screen time to date as she fully commits to being Bourne's ally, even going on the run with him. Returning director Paul Greengrass re-creates one of Identity's most memorable moments between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente) with Nicky standing in, but she never becomes a love interest. Instead she's a source of comfort and support in a world that Bourne increasingly feels alienated from.

Greengrass continues his interest in bringing current events into the narrative here, as the movie starts with a journalist from the Guardian investigating Bourne's case, and one of the series' best and most inventive action sequences involves Bourne attempting to guide that journalist (played by Paddy Considine) to safety as Vosen's forces close in around him. That's the movie's action highlight, but there's also a very exciting chase through the streets of Tangier that culminates in a great hand-to-hand fight between Bourne and the latest inferior super-assassin the government is throwing at him. At one point he uses a towel as a weapon, which isn't quite as cool as when he used a rolled-up magazine in the last movie, but is still impressive. Stiles also gets to participate in the action a bit, as Nicky proves to be resourceful in fending for herself, even if she's not as powerful as Bourne (because, of course, no one on Earth is).

The movie stumbles a bit in its efforts to give Bourne closure, with Albert Finney showing up in brief flashbacks as the doctor who led Bourne's behavioral conditioning, and then finally appearing directly in the final act, after the main villain (Vosen) has essentially been defeated. It's hard to see this as the culmination of Bourne's entire search when this character has never even been mentioned in the previous movies (and barely factored into most of this one), but Finney does his best to make the confrontation meaningful, adding gravity to a pretty thin character. In the end, the return of Bourne's memory is less about any particular antagonist than about his own self-actualization, and the ending offers a bit of hope that he could be at peace -- hope not seen since the first movie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

By killing off Jason Bourne's love interest Marie (Franka Potente) within the first 20 minutes, The Bourne Supremacy places its main character on a grim path of retribution, one that sets the tone for the rest of his onscreen adventures. The Bourne of The Bourne Identity was lost and confused but hopeful, in large part thanks to his connection with Marie. He attained a sort of peace at the end of the movie that Supremacy immediately shatters, even before Marie's death. Here, Bourne is suffering headaches and flashbacks thanks to his intense Treadstone training, and even when he and Marie are successfully off the grid, he can't escape the torment in his head. Once a corrupt Russian official frames him for the murder of two CIA agents, he has no choice but to spring back into action, ruthlessly tracking down everyone who's wronged him.

That makes Supremacy a bit less fun to watch than Identity, but it's no less entertaining, and it has greater depth as a character study. Marie may be gone, but Bourne gains a fascinating ally/adversary in Joan Allen's Pamela Landy, one of the series' best characters. While Chris Cooper's Conklin (here seen briefly in flashbacks) and Brian Cox's Ward Abbott (who gets an expanded role in this movie) were fairly one-dimensional foes in Identity, Landy is a competent spy with as much integrity as Bourne, who also values the truth over political expediency. She pursues Bourne out of a genuine desire for justice, believing him responsible for the deaths of her operatives, and she changes course confidently when she discovers the truth. The tense but respectful conversation between the two in the movie's final scene makes for a very satisfying ending (and would have even if the series had not continued).

Before that, though, Supremacy is another excellent action thriller, with director Paul Greengrass making an impressive series debut, taking over for Doug Liman. Some people complain about Greengrass' use of shaky, handheld camerawork, but to me it adds a sense of immediacy and edginess to the story, which is about someone who is constantly on edge and on the run. And Greengrass knows when to use the jittery camera to increase tension, and when to cut to a smooth overhead shot of a cityscape. There are some very good fight sequences in Supremacy, including one of Bourne's best moments, as he uses a rolled-up magazine to fend off a fellow super-assassin played by Marton Csokas. Greengrass also stages an impressive car chase that seems designed to one-up the chase in the first movie, although it does so by going so far over the top at times that it stretches credibility.

And for all his superhuman abilities, the best thing about Bourne is that he comes across as fragile and human. He's angry and hurt by the death of Marie, and by the government's unwillingness to leave him alone. He feels genuine remorse about the things he did as a government assassin, even if he can't remember most of them. Supremacy tackles the corruption and greed of clandestine government agencies and the oppressive nature of the surveillance state, but it all comes back to the anger and regret of one man who just wants to set things right.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Identity' (2002)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Director Paul Greengrass has become so closely identified with the Bourne franchise (his return is the reason the new movie, Jason Bourne, is even getting made) that it's easy to forget he hasn't actually been with the series since the beginning. Instead, The Bourne Identity, initially made as a mid-budget thriller without any long-term franchise plans, was directed by Doug Liman, a sort of journeyman director who's taken on many genres without a whole lot of personal style. That's not to say that Liman doesn't make good movies -- in addition to Identity, he directed Swingers, Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow, all solid pieces of entertainment (plus, let's not forget, the seminal first episode of The O.C.). But Liman isn't anybody's idea of an auteur, and his directorial style here is fairly anonymous, with lots of slick Hollywood elements (the sequence that depicts the activation of Bourne's fellow super-assassins, with its cheesy onscreen info text, is the most egregious).

That actually fits well with this movie, though, which follows a much more straightforward path than the sequels that come after it, without a lot of twists and surprises and backtracks. Yes, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has amnesia when he's found floating in the sea by a French fishing boat, and yes, he's surprised by his own seemingly superhuman abilities. But the movie doesn't spend much time keeping the audience in the dark, cutting fairly quickly to the CIA office where amoral bureaucrat Conklin (Chris Cooper), the first in the series' long line of amoral government bureaucrats, calls on all his resources to bring Bourne in and/or take him down. This is also the only movie in the series to give Bourne a real love interest (Franka Potente's Marie), and that makes its portrayal of Bourne himself a lot warmer and more emotional. And since this wasn't designed as a franchise-starter, it can have an actual happy ending, with the two lovers reunited for a new life together.

That's not to say that Identity is entirely superficial; Cooper and Brian Cox (who'd get a larger role in the next movie) make for perfect representations of the callous disregard of the government for people like Bourne. The scene at the end of the movie, with Cox's Ward Abbott casually dismissing the Treadstone project as a failed experiment before quickly moving on to the next budget item, is cruelly effective in depicting how irrelevant Bourne's suffering is to the people who created it. This movie was released less than a year after 9/11, and it depicts the growing paranoia about a surveillance state that would only become more all-encompassing in subsequent years (and in subsequent movies in this series).

It's also a very effective, suspenseful action movie, with one of the best car chases of all time (which subsequent movies would continue trying to top) and some awesome fight sequences between Bourne and the various killing machines sent to take him out (including one played by Clive Owen in a nearly wordless performance). The entire cast is strong: Damon proves himself to be a bona fide action star (even though he hasn't played many action roles outside of the Bourne series); Potente plays an appealing and believable love interest who isn't just a damsel in distress; Cooper and Cox are appropriately oily and ruthless as the villains; Owen gets a nice little speech as his character is dying, describing some of the dehumanizing treatment that would be explored over the next few movies; and Julia Stiles makes a promising first appearance as Nicky, the low-level agent who eventually becomes a key Bourne ally. They all play crucial roles in bringing the story together, and while the later movies may have more artistic ambition and real-world relevance, Identity works best as a self-contained popcorn thriller with just the right amount of substance.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek Into Darkness' (2013)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, Star Trek Into Darkness appears to be a very well-reviewed Hollywood blockbuster that people thoroughly enjoyed, if not quite as much as its predecessor. But look around online message boards and fan sites and movie-geek outlets, and you'll find a level of hatred for this movie that matches anything by Michael Bay. With that in mind, I wondered if I'd be less impressed by Into Darkness a second time, but if anything I liked it more this time, and would even rank it above J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek in my overall assessment of the series (see below). Yes, it has problems, most notably its awkward re-creation of classic Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh, but it also stands on its own more effectively than the previous movie did, with a more engrossing plot that makes an effort to take on sociopolitical issues in the classic Trek tradition.

It also features plenty of big action set pieces, which are clearly what the studio wants out of this franchise these days, and at times Abrams takes those a little too far. But there are many thrilling moments in this movie, starting with the fantastic opening sequence that has little to do with what comes after it, but provides a great showcase for the teamwork and camaraderie of the Enterprise crew, as well as some important moments of emotion and character development for Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). It's the kind of combination of space adventure and wide-eyed exploration that makes Trek great, and I would have been happy for the movie to maintain that tone the entire time.

As the title implies, though, Into Darkness gets much darker with the introduction of villain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rogue Starfleet officer who masterminds two deadly terrorist attacks and then flees to the Klingon home world. Halfway through the movie, Harrison is revealed as Khan, and screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman subsequently rely too heavily on callbacks to The Wrath of Khan in place of building their own compelling story. The most frustrating thing is that, with a few minor adjustments, this could easily have been a story about a villain who has some resemblance to Khan but is a separate character, and it would have worked better without having to live up to the past movie. It works fairly well even so, especially as Kirk and Spock have to make moral decisions about what constitutes a proper response to a terrorist attack, and how to bring a terrorist to justice.

Cumberbatch is very good as Harrison, who is more deviously manipulative than Ricardo Montalban's Khan, and who lacks the same intense personal desire for revenge against Kirk (he does desire revenge, but it's mainly an abstract revenge against Starfleet, and to a lesser degree against Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus). Even though Nero in the previous movie was planning to destroy entire planets, he never felt all that threatening. Harrison is genuinely creepy, sitting in the Enterprise's brig making cold, calm predictions of mayhem like Hannibal Lecter. He's a more effective villain in those scenes than he is in the absurd final fight scene, with Harrison and Spock trading blows while atop flying garbage barges. That follows the large-scale destruction of San Francisco by a crashing starship, the kind of empty action-movie devastation that this series should be smart enough to avoid.

Even cheaper is the brief, fake-out death of Kirk, which mirrors Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan, but lacks the emotional power. Obviously Kirk isn't going to stay dead, and I doubt I would have wanted to see an entire movie about bringing him back to life (in the vein of The Search for Spock), but his supposed death is so meaningless that it might as well not even be included in the movie. Still, by the end there is a real sense of loss, showing that Abrams and the screenwriters understand the consequences of their big action sequences better than most blockbuster filmmakers. Maybe it was callous to wipe out Vulcan in the previous movie and a large portion of San Francisco in this one, but at least the characters aren't just brushing those things off and moving on. People focus on the idea that the current incarnation of Star Trek is all about mindless action, but the creators of these movies still know how to take things seriously.

My final Trek rankings (after seeing Star Trek Beyond):

The Wrath of Khan
The Undiscovered Country
First Contact
Into Darkness
Beyond
Star Trek (2009)
The Voyage Home
Nemesis
The Search for Spock
Generations
The Motion Picture
The Final Frontier
Insurrection

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek' (2009)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

I was kind of blown away by J.J. Abrams' Star Trek when I first saw it in 2009 (and wrote a glowing review), and I think a big part of that was how fresh and new it felt compared to the last iterations of Trek in movies and especially on TV. But coming back to it now, after a positive reevaluation of Nemesis and many years of familiarity with the style of the new series, I was slightly less impressed. I still think it's an extremely entertaining movie and very effective at what it sets out to do (resetting the series into a new continuity while preserving the old one), but I was more aware of the faults this time around, especially the forgettable villain and the contrived way that the familiar crew comes together on the Enterprise.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and Abrams deserves enormous credit for putting together a cast that both effortlessly evokes the original characters and stands on its own. Every actor in this movie does a great job, and that goes a long way toward smoothing over the rough spots in the plotting. As in The Search for Spock and Generations, large portions of the plot exist solely for logistical reasons, so that the timeline for this series can diverge from classic continuity while leaving that continuity intact. That applies to the entire role of Leonard Nimoy as the original Spock (or Spock Prime, as he's referred to in the credits), whose presence connects the main Trek universe to this new alternate version. He travels back in time from a point eight years after the events of Nemesis, chasing the Romulan terrorist Nero (Eric Bana), and thus creating a divergent timeline. Even though his function in the movie is a continuity patch, Nimoy imbues Spock with the same soulful wisdom that he's always brought to the character, with an additional wistfulness that comes from age.

Nimoy never overshadows the main cast, though, and that's a testament to the ensemble that Abrams puts together. Chris Pine makes Kirk into a modern action hero while retaining his sense of integrity, and Zachary Quinto gives the young Spock a darker intensity to go with his typical Vulcan reserve. Karl Urban expertly channels DeForest Kelley as McCoy, still curmudgeonly even at a younger age. As they do in the original movies, Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) get only brief spotlights, but they make the most of them. Simon Pegg turns Scotty into a slightly more comedic character, although his constant exasperation was always a source of humor. Possibly the biggest change comes from Zoe Saldana as Uhura, who gets a much larger role and a more proactive personality. Her unexpected romance with Spock is one of the movie's most surprisingly successful alterations to continuity.

With a budget significantly larger than any of the previous Trek movies (even adjusted for inflation), Abrams' film features a number of very strong action set pieces, and the best special effects of the entire series. The space jump to destroy Nero's massive drill, the battle between the U.S.S. Kelvin and Nero's ship that opens the movie, and Kirk's encounter with giant alien beasts on Delta Vega are all exciting, well-designed sequences that mark the movie as a top-notch sci-fi/action blockbuster. Even with the emphasis on action, this film doesn't entirely lose the thoughtfulness that Trek is known for, and it's especially strong at character development, quickly and efficiently establishing background and relationships among the main characters. It's easy to see the respect that Kirk and Spock develop for each other, the good-natured camaraderie between Kirk and Scotty and Kirk and McCoy, and the deep love between Spock and Uhura. As the older Spock, Nimoy gets the same kind of meaningful passing-the-torch moment that William Shatner got in Generations.

The weakest point in the movie is definitely Bana's Nero, who, like Spock Prime, exists primarily to move the plot where it needs to go. Unlike Spock Prime, he never really makes an impression as a character beyond that, and the movie's use of Romulans as antagonists is less effective than their use in Nemesis. It's also a bit disappointing to see the somewhat cavalier destruction of the entire planet of Vulcan (and the entire planet of Romulus in the main timeline) as a plot device, although Quinto manages to make its loss feel significant, as Spock struggles with his grief. Given how many requirements screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman undoubtedly had to fulfill in order to get this movie to satisfy the continuity-obsessed Trekkies, remain accessible for a general audience and feature a number of big action sequences, they do a remarkable job of holding it all together. Some fans will never accept the direction that this movie set for the franchise, but to me it's an excellent synthesis between studio mandates and creative integrity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: Nemesis' (2002)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Going into Star Trek: Nemesis this time around, I had pretty low expectations. It has a poor critical reputation, and I remember being unimpressed when I saw it in the theater in 2002. So maybe that contributed to my unexpected appreciation of this final movie for the Next Generation cast. Or maybe it was the considerable reputation and body of work that Tom Hardy has built up since appearing as the villain in this movie. Maybe it was my lingering goodwill for the Next Generation cast, who never got the chance at a grand farewell that was given to the original cast. Whatever it was, I thoroughly enjoyed Nemesis this time around, nearly as much as First Contact, and I think it might be the most underrated Trek movie of all.

Producers clearly learned some lessons from the success of First Contact and the lackluster response to Insurrection, bringing back many of the elements that worked so well in First Contact. There's a lot more action here, there's a villain with personal ties to Picard, there's a main plot that puts the entire Federation in danger, there's a Data subplot that hinges on his melancholy longing rather than dumb humor, and there's a large role for one of the well-known alien races from the TV series. All of those elements work, to varying degrees, making Nemesis far more exciting and suspenseful than Insurrection. The focus on Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) means that the supporting characters (especially Michael Dorn's Worf and LeVar Burton's Geordi LaForge) end up without much to do, although Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) gets her most substantial role in any of the movies.

The connection between the villainous Shinzon (Hardy) and Picard is more than a bit contrived, but the two actors make it work, and their scenes together are generally very good. Shinzon is the human leader of the Remans, the soldier/laborer caste of Romulan society, and he stages a gruesome coup over the Romulan government at the beginning of the movie. It turns out that he's a clone of Picard (via a rather flimsy explanation), which sets the stage for a lot of dialogue about mirror images and nature vs. nurture. The Data storyline dovetails nicely with that (although it's equally contrived), as Data discovers B-4, a prototype version of himself with a more naive, childlike manner (who is also being used as a pawn by Shinzon).

Shinzon's identification with and hatred for Picard resembles the relationship between Khan and Kirk, but to me it doesn't feel like a retread (even though that's one of the main criticisms of the movie). Shinzon is less sophisticated and more aggressive than Khan, and more interested in conquest along with his vengeance. Hardy gives him the tragic nobility that marks the best Trek movie villains, and even when Shinzon's plans don't entirely make sense, Hardy's performance makes them convincing. He poses a real danger and even seems close to defeating the Enterprise at the end (which of course he doesn't, but he does force a situation in which Data must make the ultimate sacrifice). There's a genuine sadness both to Data's "death" and to the death of what Picard sees as his younger self.

As much as I enjoy J.J. Abrams' 2009 Trek reboot, it makes me sad that Nemesis marked the end of the Next Generation movies. It may be a decent movie, but it still doesn't provide a fitting send-off for the characters. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) moves on to be captain of a new ship and Data is seemingly destroyed, but everyone else just continues on as they were. Screenwriter John Logan (an outsider brought in after three movies written by Trek TV writers) apparently had an idea for another movie that he was working on with Brent Spiner (who shares story credit on Nemesis), that would have also included some characters from Deep Space Nine and Voyager (Janeway makes a cameo here), and I would have loved to see that (and still would). But if the Next Generation crew is never going to make it back to the big screen, at least they got to tackle a story with real themes and character development in their last outing. For fans who dismissed it at the time, it's worth another look.