My 2012 Movies in Retrospect, #15-8

In part one of our three-part miniseries, I reminisced about my least favorite theatrical experiences of 2012, works that other viewers may have liked a lot more than I did. Part two, then, is a veritable middle-ground parade — movies that weren’t a waste of my time, some even eligible for eventual addition to my library, but were a few steps removed from instant-classic status according to my recondite guidelines.

The countdown advances:

Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy15. The Bourne Legacy. The way my mental math works out, this section of my list contains this year’s zestiest popcorn flicks — action yarns that propelled me along despite nagging storytelling flaws. Jeremy Renner’s two-hour overseas vacation video neatly fits that slot. Though the extended chases pale before the emotional stakes and the intricate cat-and-mouse games of the second and third Bourne chapters, Renner is fun to cheer on anyway as a plainspoken everyman upgraded to an outnumbered battle machine. In that sense it’s the spy-genre equivalent of a Rocky movie, albeit without a satisfying Ivan Drago analogue.

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“The Bourne Legacy”: 2½ Hours of Jeremy Renner Having the Time of His Life

Tonight’s entertainment was a discount showing of The Bourne Legacy, in which Academy Award Nominee Jeremy Renner enjoys the perks of action heroism without looking like a plasticine sellout. That’s all I wanted, and I’m happy that my expectations were cheerfully met. I was willing to let most of the deficiencies slide.

To understand my mindset, head directly the $5 DVD bin at your nearest Wal*Mart and pick up a copy of 2003’s S.W.A.T., which was chiefly a loud mash-up of the incongruous stylings of Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell. When I watched it years ago, I couldn’t help noticing the showy bad-cop with all the best lines, played by a confident young guy who seemed to be enjoying himself a lot more than the marquee names were. Not long after, I caught him during my Angel DVD marathon in a season-one role as a gleefully evil vampire — once again, cockier and smiling a lot more than his opponent. After back-to-back favorable experience,s I made a mental note to keep an eye out for young Renner in the future.

Fast-forward years later: now his resumé includes The Avengers, The Hurt Locker, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — all grade-A films in my book, all this close to making Renner a household name. Also of interest: last November Entertainment Weekly published a lengthy article about him that detailed his lean years as a struggling actor living a life far from luxury while chasing his dreams. That struck a chord with me, and only served to upgrade my mental note into a full-fledged set of index cards. In the filing cabinet that is my mind, that’s a kind of praise.

Renner finally worked his way up to carrying a big-budget action film on his own (instead of as a sidekick or teammate) with The Bourne Legacy, in which his character is torn between a government that needs him dead and a skeptical audience that’s 95% certain he’s not Matt Damon. I liked the original trilogy, but not nearly enough to consider it sacrosanct. The same screenwriter, Tony Gilroy, is now in the director’s chair adapting his own words for the screen, and he even allows cameos from previous players David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. We still have the specter of the evil government programs named Treadstone and Blackbriar, begging to be joined by other new evil programs with ten-letter compound names like “Thumbscrew” or “Riverdance”. It’s in the same timeline as the trilogy, no reboot or disregard for what came before. (Granted, I have no idea how hardcore Robert Ludlum fans feel about what amounts to an apocryphal spinoff…)

I wasn’t really concerned with whether or not it lived up to its predecessors. I harbored no delusion that it would be groundbreaking. I entered in hopes of seeing a guy who used to live on ramen noodles and unpaid light bills enjoy the fruits of a turnaround of fate. As the last survivor of a black-ops Super-Soldier Program made possible by the sinister forces of Big Pharmaceutical, Renner finds plenty of quiet moments for emotion and sincerity in between the running, chasing, punching, kicking, parkour, motorcycle stunts, and smash-cam closeups. His earnestness and lack of Hollywood sheen go a long way toward redeeming a role that, in the shallow end of the ’80s, would have been relegated to any number of direct-to-video martial-arts “stars”.

Also worth noting is Rachel Weisz as the requisite damsel in distress, trying on an American accent for a change, carefully modulating her fearfulness instead of aiming for full-tilt histrionics like others might in her place, and standing her ground as needed with her fully accredited science skills. Edward Norton stands out a tad as the evil overseer with the best-written lines (particularly his discomfiting description of the evil Program as “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary”). I spent the entire movie thinking Stacy Keach was Albert Finney as Evil Overseer #2, so I guess that’s a job well done. And after having coincidentally watched *batteries not included the other night, I was shocked to see that Dennis Boutsikaris, as the constantly upset Evil Overseer #3, has indeed aged a full twenty-five years over the last twenty-five years. Shocking but true.

I had to focus on the performances because the rest of the movie was a mixed bag. The “plot” is Our Heroes enduring one long chase scene while all the best villains hide in a faraway room. All armed henchmen working outside the main control room are one-note, including one Super-Duper-Soldier with no lines and no demonstrable evidence as to why his even-eviler Evil Program was superior to Our Hero’s. The climactic auto-wrecking dance is shot with such a claustrophobic eye that I lost all sense of setting and placement, and thought I was trapped on a merry-go-round. And the movie pauses all that chasing instead of actually ending, as if everyone involved simply stopped and called a truce so they could move on to their next projects.

But for my money’s worth, I achieved my goal of watching Renner hang out with interesting people in exotic locales while stunts are performed and entertainment is adequately concocted for my discounted dollar. Hopefully we won’t have to watch the sad sight of Renner selling out altogether in future years and demanding ten times his salary for an extra-bloated sequel called The Bourne Travesty.

Three final notes, in keeping with past movie entries:

1. The Bourne Legacy has no scene after the end credits. Once again for the true fans, the credits do roll to a reprise of the official Bourne theme, Moby’s “Extreme Ways”.

2. In terms of content, mostly it’s about the smashing and exploding, with very few curse words added so we know it’s still a Hollywood film. For those with the sensibilities of a great-great-grandmother, the end credits include a warning label about the scenes of smoking (*gasp!*) being “an artistic choice” rather than paid product placement. If that makes or breaks the deal for you, consider yourself warned.

3. I counted one veteran of The Wire onscreen: blink and you’ll miss Christopher Mann — a.k.a. one-time mayoral candidate Tony Gray — as a panicky guard desperately failing to smash his way through a locked door. Poor Tony just can’t catch a break.

James Bond vs. Not-Jason Bourne: Who Will Be America’s Next Jason Bourne?

Last weekend I finally watched Daniel Craig’s second James Bond film, Quantum of Solace after years of stalling due to unenthusiastic reviews. I’ve never been a big James Bond fan and, to be honest, have seen less than half the films — one Connery, a few Roger Moore, all the Brosnan ones except Goldeneye, and both Daniel Craig joints. So far, Casino Royale is the only one that I would rate above a B. That may be because Craig is less suave and sophisticated, more pragmatic, and definitely more bruised and bloodied. Not that I crave movie blood, but his Bond sweats and struggles more on the job than his pampered alternate-Earth predecessors did in my limited experience. Heroes spoiled rotten don’t appeal much to me. Batman may be rich, but you can tell he still has to put effort into what he does.

Perhaps it helps that Craig’s Bond seems less like traditional Bond and more like Jason Bourne — an unlikely hero who saves the day through determination, intense fist-fighting, handheld cameras, and smash-cuts into smash-cuts. Quantum of Solace seems brazen about its co-opting of the Bourne method. I didn’t mind at all until the action paused for character moments, few of which stacked up to the quiet moments and tense complications (exception: any and all uses of Dame Judi Dench). With half the movie sturdy and half of it wanting, Quantum didn’t quite find the same balance that director Paul Greengrass did in the second and third Bournes.

It remains to be seen, then, which of the upcoming spy films will rise above and bear the crown of the Bourne heir apparent. In this corner: Craig’s next Bond film, Skyfall:

This first teaser doesn’t offer nearly enough fluid fight samples for my taste, though that shadowy figure near the end is rumored to be special guest villain Javier Bardem. If anyone can grace us with a far more memorable presence than either of Craig’s last two opponents, Bardem is a safe bet.

In the other corner: The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner as a spiritual doppelgänger of Matt Damon.

Stars a-plenty in that one. Edward Norton! Rachel Weisz! Joan Allen! Albert Finney! Rhys Ifans! David Strathairn! And is that Zelkjo Ivanek? (Well, I thought it was him.) And I probably missed even more. The Alley-Swoop-Cam shot at the end shows promise, though it’s a wee derivative of the window-jump shot from The Bourne Ultimatum.

Despite the months separating their release dates, I look forward to the cage match.

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