Bourne Retains an Identity

The Bourne Legacy (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Tony Gilroy (Universal Pictures)

Walking in, my most disconcerting thought regarding The Bourne Legacy was that another may follow, considering that even this first expansion of the original trilogy (which wrapped itself up rather nicely in 2007) seemingly had nowhere to go. Universal therefore made a grand decision in hiring the co-writer of the first three films, Tony Gilroy, to direct. Featuring a screenplay written by Gilroy and his brother, Dan, in addition to editing by his second brother, John, The Bourne Legacy truly is a family affair, helmed by a man who knows how to build upon a franchise he had a tremendous stake in … and still does.

Alas, we have no Matt Damon, but Jeremy Renner, as newly introduced protagonist Aaron Cross, gives a commanding performance. And as opposed to Damon’s vulnerable intensity, Renner is successful in delivering a character that is compelling for different reasons. Meanwhile, Gilroy’s direction provides the perfect balance between the stylization of Doug Liman’s original (which in my opinion, remains the weakest film of the four), and the superior, more naturalistically violent sequels by Paul Greengrass. In Legacy, the quick-cut action sequences are surprisingly well-edited, delivering rapid moments of intensity that contrast with a film of much slower pace than its predecessors.

The screenplay, while blending much of the narrative with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, is clever to the extent that it is consistently thrilling, despite containing relatively thin plotting (which becomes clear in a rather flimsy third act). Many would say that Damon was the heart of the series, and they would probably be right. But there is enough interesting material here to believe that if Gilroy continues to expand this universe (while still retaining the presence of both Jason Bourne and the impact of his character, which is done phenomenally here), there may still be life in what started as a bizarre case of amnesia.

As Cross, Renner plays a black ops agent in a program similar to the one that bred Bourne, and that which faces exposure after the impactful events of Ultimatum. Only him and Dr. Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz) remain after a CIA attempt to destroy all human evidence, an escapade led by operations head Eric Beyer (Edward Norton). Renner may lack Damon’s questioning gaze, but he feels completely right for this new role; a man who must acquire the ferocity of a lone wolf, while retaining the humanity that his superiors abandon.

Thankfully, Cross and Weisz’s character aren’t cheapened by becoming immediate lovers, but they do share an interest in one another that goes beyond their mutual desire to stay alive. They have both become casualities of the government cleaning up its messes, and despite whether or not they are attracted to each other, their mutual hope fuels them in a quest to escape bureaucratic evil. Both performances are sharp, but the real scene-stealer is Norton, whose character is simply required to forgo making moral decisions.

This theme of the Bourne films continues here, and is executed just as well. The government creates victims in its attempt to provide elaborate national security, but fails to cover its tracks when one of those victims (with semi-superhuman abilities) fights back. Jason Bourne had identity issues; plus they just wouldn’t leave the poor guy alone. Aaron Cross just wants to break from the absurdity. Therefore, there’s no hero / villain relationship between himself and Ed Norton, there’s simply two men doing what they believe must be done. The one scene they share together is fantastic, and despite not having any other confrontation, their conflicting interests remain as strong in the script as the spirit of Jason Bourne.

Legacy‘s got legs to stand on, mostly because Gilroy found the right frame of reference in which to build a sequel. But if he hopes to expand the series even further, things are gonna have to get inventive. His film has few twists to speak of, and along with Damon, the densly-plotted intrigue of the prior two films is sorely missing. In fact, not enough really happens in The Bourne Legacy, but as an action film, it has enough layers of subtext to be as dramatically consistent as it is thrilling in several action sequences and moments of suspense.

Many opening scenes are set in Alaska, and feature story material (and a touch of symbolism) that is far different from anything else we have seen in the Bourne franchise. In contradiction, the film tends to show weakness in its retread of situations and dialogue that seem to nearly parody dramatic intricacies of the series. A rather implausible plot development involving a super-assassin is one such example; an unexplored complication lending itself to an abrupt resolution. At least Moby’s “Extreme Ways” plays in the end credits, once again. But of course, a little extra juice is slapped on the now-classic tune. I then return to my initial thought, and wonder what lies beyond Legacy. What I’m looking for is the next track, but in the meantime, who doesn’t enjoy a good remix?



They’re Baaach!!!

The Expendables 2 (August 17, 2012)     ★★ 1/2

Directed by Simon West (Lionsgate)

Double the guns! Double the laughs! Double the sighs! The Expendables 2 is here, and for those who care to remember, it’s already been two years since Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Willis, Crews, and Couture teamed up for the ultimate action flick. Unfortunately, it resembled little more than a direct-to-video entry in any one of these star’s expansive catalogues of ass-kicking. This sequel, while suffering from many of the same downfalls of its predecessor, benefits from the absence of star/co-writer/creator Sylvester Stallone’s direction, which along with Jeffrey Kimball’s cinematography, formulated an ugly barrage of close-ups and shaky-cam antics. In contrast, The Expendables 2 happens to be directed by Con Air‘s Simon West, and shot by Shelly Johnson (Captain America: The First Avenger), which at least supplies some stability to the film’s relentlessly chaotic style, and in effect, will satisfy those who anticipated the first to be crowned king of its genre.

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays the villain this time around, and we are assured so by the character’s last name of ‘Vilain.’ Like the first, the film lacks much of any ambition in the plot department, basically involving Stallone and his team in a quest to obtain precious cargo from a fallen aircraft. Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in what are two roles worthy of admission itself (despite their completely illogical placement within the narrative), both look terrific, state their absurd dialogue with excellent timing, and manage to earn applause with their campy, gun-toting return to the big screen. Van Damme is also a surprisingly fun villain, and luckily, had the smarts to demand an extended fight scene between himself and Stallone in the film’s climax, which remains the shining moment in West’s semi-oiled machine.

Meanwhile, Chinese actress Yu Nan plays the newest addition to Stallone’s team, and as if her acting weren’t lackluster enough, the film seems to indicate that her presence alone only adds depth to mediocre storytelling (She’s a woman … GASP! It’s not like this is the 21st century or anything, and we’ve been shown a million times that women actually CAN kick an obscene amount of ass). Liam Hemsworth, playing a young sniper who is also a new addition to the crew, is a catalyst for much of the narrative development in the film, and yes, it plays out just as generically as you may anticipate. But he is also rather satisfactory in the role, and handles a silly monologue (the script was written by Stallone and Richard Wenk) with convincing, emotional stature. He’s no Mickey Rourke, but hey, the guy’s getting married to Miley Cyrus. I guess he needed at least one thing to be proud of.

As for the action itself, these movies could really benefit from some slow-mo, John Woo-style theatrics. Even if Johnson’s cinematography gets the job done, the color scheme is often dull and murky, the frame containing grain and shadowy attempts to play with light. The editing, by Todd E. Miller, is nearly as poor as that in the first film, quickly cutting action scenes to the point of frustration. They are, however, slightly more coherent than the 2010 sequences, and the effects / practical sequences actually blend in a way that makes us appreciate these fellas doing their own stunts, rather than be overwhelmed by digital blood and explosions (although the CGI still looks utterly unconvincing).

The ultra-violence does feel considerably more cohesive and intense in this second entry, but still fails to live up to its potential. For a film that could have such a large scope, The Expendables 2 limits itself by continuing the original’s usage of Bourne-style schizophrenia, rather than staging elaborate sequences that could colorfully transport us into breathable frames of carnage. Instead, most of the enjoyment comes from simply seeing these guys all onscreen at once, shelling out one-liners like it’s a competition. Their frequent use of self-parody does make the film consistently amusing, but can’t make up for dialogue that is laughably second-rate, and plot elements that resemble a deflated balloon.

I always thought it was a grand idea for Stallone to cast himself and Jason Statham as the two bromantic leaders of their mercenary crew, because if there is one thing worth appreciating about The Expendables films, it’s the sense of communal involvement amongst a group of guys who simply love what they do, and who may not always get the chance to enact their profession. Stallone’s films give these 65-year-old stars of yesteryear that chance, and his chemistry with Statham (a mere rookie compared with the rest of these veterans) exemplifies how lucky he feels, and how eager he is to share his colleagues’ blood-soaked abilities with a new generation. These movies have their audience, and it’s hard to believe fans will be disappointed. There is fun to be had with The Expendables 2, but let’s hope their next entry isn’t so … disposable.


(Somewhat Guilty) Pleasures of Summer

Magic Mike (2012)     ★★★★

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Warner Bros. Pictures)

*CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS* women flock to see a film about a male stripper, you would instantaneously form the conception of a subpar romantic-comedy, that starring a popular male actor (with grad-A pecs) who ditches the swinger life for true love. While this is partially the premise for Magic Mike, it would be wise to ditch those notions of mediocrity. Steven Soderbergh’s stylistic confidence is the framework for a show that is surprisingly enthralling, only failing to reach the mark when the script (written by Reid Carolin) exhausts its narrative ambition. Regardless, it’s also one of the year’s best comedy-dramas, and will continue to lure in audiences who aren’t simply looking for a shot of Channing Tatum’s naked rear.

Based upon Tatum’s experience as a Tampa stripper at age 19, the performance of this 32-year-old heartthrob is simply terrific. After proving his knack for comedy in this year’s hilarious 21 Jump Street, Tatum deftly blends his charisma with dramatic composure, instantly transforming Mike into a memorable character and frontman for the film’s conveyance of a quite compelling, albeit predictable, method of storytelling. The kid he begins to train, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), is also very well-played; moody and impulsive, good-looking and hungry for vice. But as the narrative runs its course, he becomes more and more unlikable. Although this is surely the intent of the filmmakers, they fail to surpass convention in the relationship between Mike, Adam, and their differing views of life throughout the movie’s third act, which falls rather flat.

But for the most part, Magic Mike also fulfills the cliché of being balls-out fun, featuring accomplished talent behind and in front of the camera. Matthew McConaughey, after graduating from indie roles into full-fledged, Hollywood movie-stardom, has returned to his roots over the past few years, generating much buzz for his performances in the likes of The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Killer Joe, and Soderbergh’s film. Here, he plays Dallas, the lead stripper and entrepreneurial force behind Tampa’s finest gentlemen, giving a hilarious performance, and enacting a compelling symbol of the negligent, greedy world that Mike wants to escape before it’s too late, in addition to the one that quickly grabs Adam by the privates. The other fellas, including Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello, are also terrifically played.

In fact, the only flaw in the film’s casting is Cody Horn as Alex’s sister / Mike’s love interest, who appears almost distractingly amateurish. Never once is she believable as the character, appearing to read lines rather than play a part. Although one bum performance shouldn’t be much of a problem, the ridiculous talent on display in Magic Mike makes her presence seem even weaker. Horn states dialogue with exactly the same vocal inflection and body language, with the exception of one panicky scene she plays rather well. The result drains dramatic weight from several key moments, especially when Tatum gives his inevitable “I’m not JUST a stripper! I’m a man with ambition and stuff!” speech.

Eventually, Carolin’s script takes an easy route to self-resolution, but it’s easy to see what the film is going for. Soderbergh, who may soon retire from directing, composes long takes with such interestingly composed foreground and background; artistry that would arouse movie nerds just as much as Tatum’s chest for nearly anyone with estrogen. As for the dance sequences (and this is coming from a heterosexual man), they are simply superb. Not only are they over-the-top funny, but Soderbergh actually allows each frame to breathe; he doesn’t follow the music video mentality of quick-cut nonsense, that methodology almost always resulting in visual incoherence.

By cutting sparingly, and allowing the audience to view each shot for an extended period of time, we are able to see how truly talented each of these actors are. They not only look damn ripped, but can rock a dance routine like an urban Gene Kelly. And because Soderbergh choreographs these scenes without swapping to a different angle every half-second, we are actually able to enjoy them in real time and space. We become an audience member at the Xquisite Strip Club, and as a result, are considerably more involved in Mike’s story.

Unfortunately, despite this excellent cinematography and editing (for the latter, consider a dual sex-scene/montage where Soderbergh uses a different color filter for each plane of action), Magic Mike never capitalizes on its own greatness. Soderbergh keeps a light-hearted tone throughout most of the film (think of the Ocean’s movies), even as it descends into the darker territories of the stripper scene. For the most part, this is a pretty cool decision; it keeps the film from entering predictable, morality-tale area. But as the movie keeps trying to explain that Mike is a three-dimensional person, it never fulfills the promise of giving him more than one decision to make.

Mike wants to be a custom-furniture maker, but he may never get that chance, whether or not he ditches the dollar-bill-spewing nightlife. But how would he cope with life without making cash, or fulfilling his dream? How would he deal with complete ambivalence to any aspiration he has? We’ll never really know, and in that regard, Magic Mike is slightly underwhelming. But what the film does show us – three months in the life of a stripper questioning his existence, and another who finds women, drugs, and ripping off clothes as a reason for existing, this is a highly functional movie. It’s witty, outrageous, bizarre, artistically sound, thought-provoking, and compulsively entertaining. But let’s revisit that third word, bizarre, and place it in its proper context.

I believe Steven Soderbergh is one of the most talented directors of the past couple decades, and one reason why his films are as compelling as they appear is not only because of his terrific camerawork, but also his knack for taking seemingly overused concepts and twisting them in a slightly unfamiliar way. I was conversing with a friend the other day, saying something in the ballpark of, “Soderbergh is a great director, but he never gives me exactly what I want.” The friend responded, “Maybe he doesn’t want to.”

Rumor on the street is Soderbergh wants to explore painting after he finishes his last few films. Maybe he would do a portrait of Channing Tatum. I can see it now – the beefy actor standing in a room, pondering the brushstrokes, as the bald-headed, thick-rimmed artist sits on a nearby couch, eagerly awaiting his reaction with folded hands. Tatum may sarcastically comment, “Well, it looks great, Steve, but I’d love to see a little more shading on the biceps.” They’d both laugh. Soderbergh may then reply, “C’mon Channing, you know we both had our chance to look good.”

Mike sure does look good, but he may never find exactly what he wants. Because as Magic Mike would like us to believe, “exactly what you want” is difficult to obtain, especially when everyone criticizes us for not enough bicep shading. But the film is still charming and hopeful, even mildly carefree in its execution, maybe because Mike, an arguable surrogate for both Tatum and Soderbergh, has now descended into something that makes desire seem puny in comparison – the bliss of freedom, the embrace of the unknown. It allowed Tatum to become an actor, and if Soderbergh hopes to match his cinematic skills to those on a canvas, he’ll follow his star’s example, and continue to paint the biceps any which way. Because in this day and age, having them simply isn’t good enough. Or maybe it is. I guess it all depends on what you want.







Piranha 3DD (2012)     ★★

Directed by John Gulager (Dimension Films) the D’s being doubled, this sequel to the 2010 horror/comedy remake isn’t nearly as fun, hinging only on sporadically hilarious moments of over-the-top, sexual gore, complemented by the walking, talking self-parody known as David Hasselhoff. It’s over before you know it, and the arrangement of scenes is barely enough to provide a cohesive narrative. So depending on your tolerance for this vein of “D-movie” (I’m introducing you to the film’s level of humor), this might be one to catch with your less-sober buddies.


BD / DVD RELEASE – September 4th


The Raid: Redemption (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Gareth Evans (Sony Pictures Classics), action fans could do no better than The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian extravaganza that features astonishingly breathtaking sequences of gunplay and martial arts, all taking place within a crime-ridden apartment complex that the law has been sent to bring down. The violence is relentlessly exciting and intense, faring far better than writer/director Gareth Evans’ storytelling. But that’s understandably secondary to the tightly shot and edited thrills that come one after the other, solidifying The Raid as this year’s best action film.


BD / DVD RELEASE – August 14th