“The Bourne Legacy” has no “Bourne” and will leave no “Legacy”. So I guess there’s just a “The”.

By now it’s fairly common knowledge that 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the king among 21st century action-cinema. But when people flocked to it, they flocked for the kinetic action sequences, for the technical mastery displayed by director Paul Greengrass, and, obviously, for Matt Damon in the role of his lifetime as Jason Bourne, an amnesiac spy on the run.

If there was a caveat to the overall picture, it was all the overly convoluted conspiracy-talk spouted off by the corrupt CIA officers pursuing Bourne. Endless babble about spy programs and assassin programs and parallel programs serving both functions: it was an overload of information, in the end, meaning nothing. “The Bourne Legacy”, completely misinterpreting what made its predecessors click, (“Supremacy” and “Ultimatum” at least) piles on all the exposition. All the convolution. All the confusion. It’s a film so entangled in its own mechanisms, it forgets to check for a heart. Or, really, a point.

The non-return of Matt Damon, or rather, Jason Bourne, is a big deal. This much has been well-discussed, both in the press and by the creative team behind “Legacy”, led by writer-director Tony Gilroy. But it was never a major strike against the potential quality of the thing, and if there is one thing to be said for “Legacy”, it’s that the main character is a radical departure from Jason Bourne.

“Legacy”‘s new protagonist, Aaron Cross, is a government-enhanced assassin, just like Bourne. But where Bourne was a dead-serious man, struggling in a search for his identity, Cross is a more friendly, open sort, but one who is scrambling to get ahold of the ‘chems’ he’s been dependent on for years — in essence, the pills that greatly increase his physical stamina and his intelligence. Problem is, because of Jason Bourne’s exploits in the original trilogy, blowing the lid publicly on top-secret assassin programs, the CIA wants everything burned to the ground. Unfortunately for Cross, this means his employers want him dead.

Jeremy Renner, playing Cross, is as exceptional as his blessed career has led one to expect. He strikes a perfect mix of physical intensity, charm, and mental capability. If there’s anything to be felt at all in this film, it’s rooting for his survival. Unfortunately, that’s not always the easiest thing to root for, considering that he spends the entire film killing men and wreaking havoc so that he can get his hands on a couple of pills.

As for the rest of the considerably talented ensemble? Squandered, mostly. Rachel Weisz plays a genius/potential love-interest that Cross recruits to help pursue his ‘chem’ fix. Apart from a central, chilling set-piece in which a co-worker guns down Weisz’s peers in front of her, the Oscar winner doesn’t get to flex the sort of dramatic muscles that one would hope. The great, insane Edward Norton is also reduced to a pencil-pushing role as a government dweeb forced to hunt Cross when he goes on the run. In addition, various veterans of the franchise (David Straithairn, Joan Allen, Albert Finney) all make welcome returns. It’s a pity their role lengths don’t exceed five minutes, and that when they’re on-screen, it’s spouting more superfluous information.

There’s a motorcycle chase towards the end of “The Bourne Legacy” between the protagonists and an unnamed villain, that neatly summarizes all the bones I have to pick with the film. Setting aside the awkward staging and odd editing choices, it’s an unimaginative concept (Drive here! Shoot there! Dodge that!) that seems to rage on, and on, until it eventually becomes the first chase scene in recent memory where I actually glanced at my watch. While director Tony Gilroy has created amazing things in the past, primarily the George Clooney legal-thriller “Michael Clayton”, he seems to believe that, as with “Clayton”, the more information delivered, the higher the intensity.

The result is a slickly made, technically capable film that doesn’t know when to shut up — talking itself into a corner to the point that when breaks of action sequences arrive, it’s too late to be engaged. This was not a franchise that should have been “Bourne” again. (hahahahahahah) C-

In this review I compare “Total Recall” to an annoying five-year old child.

There’s an oft-heard phrase (one that I hate, incidentally, for how oft-heard it is): if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” remake inspires a new one: if it’s a classic, don’t touch it, under any circumstance, ever. Wiseman manages to take his original source material, the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle among the best science-fiction films ever made, and strip it of its zest, its humor, its originality, and unpredictability. What it does keep? The lead character’s name, and a cameo from a three-breasted woman. If there’s a poster-boy for the sort of sterile yet coolly efficient fare Hollywood has gravitated towards, it’s this.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of “Total Recall” is that it operates as tightly as clockwork. This thing has been thought through deeply on every level, but not from a creative standpoint, rather, a financial one: from the two female action heroines thrown in to court teenage-male favor, to the frustratingly anti-climatic ending put in place to establish franchise potential. Even the vanilla musical score from Harry Gregson-Williams seems to deliberately evoke the films it’s plagiarizing: “The Bourne Identity”, “Attack of the Clones”, et cetera.

This brings me to the story. In a post-“Inception” world, where more demanding concepts have proven to reap more dollars from time to time, studios seem to mistake high concepts for high satisfaction. Indeed, “Total Recall” is a densely layered soufflé of questions one doesn’t care to answer. Is the lead character, Quaid, a spy? Is he an ordinary guy? Which faction, good or bad, is he leading? Was he spying on them for the other one? Are the events dream, or reality?

The answer to all above questions, of course, is that I don’t care. Because director Len Wiseman fails to develop Colin Farrell’s protagonist, Quaid, none of the narrative convolution carries weight. It’s like an overexcited five-year old thinking you can’t see him as he hides behind a folding chair.

It’s a shame too, because who’s cooler than Colin Farrell?! Few have rooted for his comeback more fervently than I, and now that it’s in his lap, he gets decked with this script. “Total Recall”, set about a century in the future, has Farrell/Quaid on an adventure as he is accused by government officials of being a top-secret spy. Problem is, Quaid only remembers a life as an unassuming factory worker, although these memories are, as the film goes on, called increasingly into doubt. Quaid is soon pursued by government assassins, as well as leaders of a rebel movement who ALSO claim Quaid is among their ranks. This is all occurring JUST as the government rolls out a plan to…well…invade an entire opposing colony, by, ehm, transporting a secret robot army via ship through the center of the earth. I wish I was making this up. Truly. Did I mention all of this might be occurring inside a machine that implants artificial memories into Quaid’s mind?

“Total Recall”s story fails to satisfy on the most perfunctory level. Perhaps this is because of the glut of contributors: Wikipedia credits six distinct writers, to say nothing of Phillip K. Dick’s 1966 original short story, which in turn, inspired the 1990 film. All of these visions “Total Recall” seems to want to satisfy, fulfilling, in the end, none of them.

Len Wiseman’s eye for action never fails to disappoint, either. Judging from past work on the first two “Underworld” films and the recent “Die Hard”, he seems to have a habit of making his action crisp to the point of removing the impact. Seeing as “Total Recall”, in between bouts of endless, ineffective exposition, is solely concerned with action, this is a big problem. The whole damn movie is a big, long chase. But what happens when the chase just isn’t very interesting, and the filmmakers creating the chase just don’t really engage you? “Total Recall” is a film about a man without a clear identity that, in turn, has no clear identity. It’s not fun to watch, although it is very fun to write about. D-

 

“The Watch” a loosely assembled, mildly pleasing comedy

“The Watch” is 102 minutes of unfocused, sporadically enthused attempt to satisfy four different styles of comedy. The only thing as bizarre as its tone is the fact that the film is no failure. When one has the nervously neurotic Ben Stiller, over-caffeinated Vince Vaughn, subtly disturbed Jonah Hill and deadly dry Richard Ayoade under one comedic roof, things are bound to be inconsistent. Director Akiva Schaffer often times removes himself and his story from the focus, often letting these four funnymen simply co-exist with one another, talking about penises, aliens, and alien penises. This renders “The Watch” as less of a story and more of a comedic exercise, a $70 million playground in which some of the commercial leaders of American comedy can cut loose.

They’re strung together by the loosest of story lines: in an unassuming Ohio suburb, Evan (Stiller) is beginning to suspect that aliens are behind a series of killings. He assembles three other downbeats to form a protective neighborhood watch: Bob (Vaughn), Franklin (Hill), and Jamarcus (Ayoade), all tasked to investigate the killings. Weakly developed subplots include Evan groping with his infertility and failing marriage, as well as Bob’s protective nature over his teenage daughter. These unnecessary plot beats side-step “The Watch” away from its truly irreverent, goofy nature, odd given that writers Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg have benefitted in past films from their refusal to do just that.

From an emotional perspective “The Watch” isn’t really anything to write home about, although this isn’t exactly different from expectations. Where the real hook of “The Watch” comes from is watching the American exposure of Richard Ayoade, a tremendously talented actor/director. He’s the dry counterpoint to everyone else’s overeager comedic energy, and pretty much walks away with the entire film. 

“The Watch” poses just about one interesting question, which is one I imagine most people won’t have to deal with: when a film’s ambitions shoot low and meet that measly goal, how do you formally critique it? Describing the merits of “The Watch” is like describing the merits of a lengthy penis joke, probably because “The Watch” is a lengthy penis joke. C+

“The Dark Knight Rises” an underwhelming if skillful conclusion

After four years of rabid anticipation for “The Dark Knight Rises”, it feels totally anticlimactic to finally take a seat and pound out words about it. No film has had as opulent a build-up, with thousands of theories and millions of comments buzzing around brief advance clips, snapshots even. “The Dark Knight Rises” is here and it is good. It’s a great thematic extension of Christopher Nolan’s terrific one-two punch of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”, piling on the weighty ideas as it raises the stakes of their spectacle.

Adopting a worldview as grim and stark as any major Hollywood production out there, “The Dark Knight Rises” is about no less than the total meltdown of a great American city. The fact that its subject, Gotham, doesn’t exist? Secondary. In this fictional behemoth we’ve come to identify all of the realities and limitations facing the real world, as well as the great acts of heroism that can also arise.

But just because “The Dark Knight Rises” is ideologically mature doesn’t mean the same for its storytelling. In fact, the film is a mess. Christopher Nolan, who’s developed a remarkable sense of control and craftsmanship in past films, seems to have forgotten everything he knows about pace and escalation. Characters come and go as they please, often disappearing for over 90 minutes, with introductions just as abrupt and jolting.

Fresh off the success of his phenomenal “Inception”, Nolan has littered the cast of “Rises” with veterans from that film, first of which is Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Bane, a fiercely intelligent cult leader who wants nothing less than to annihilate Gotham City. While a great worry of mine was whether the film’s villain would live up to that of its predecessor, Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker, Hardy owns this shit. His voice is a sort of aristocratic purr, providing a great contrast to his insanely chiseled physique.

Bane has arrived in Gotham with the means to activate a hydrogen bomb and a plan to isolate the 12 million-strong metropolis from the rest of the world. The only thing in the dude’s way? The billionaire Bruce Wayne, or at least, his vigilante alter-ego Batman. This said, it’s been eight years since the tragic events of “The Dark Knight” rocked Wayne’s physique, turning him into a bitter, out-of-shape recluse. If Wayne is to “get back in the game”, he’ll need all the help he can get.

“The Dark Knight Rises”, if nothing else, has the most flawless cast of any film this year. The problem is whether much is done with the characters. There’s the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing beat cop John Blake, whose idolization of Batman gives him the strongest moral compass in the film. Gordon-Levitt is certainly the strongest supporting player at work here, and its his fate I came to value over most others. Anne Hathaway plays the elusive thief Selina Kyle (clearly Catwoman, despite never being named as such) as forcefully and convincingly as any other role in her career. Her moral ambiguity is one of the only truly mysterious elements of the film, and the sight of her in a skintight suit certainly isn’t an ugly thing. Returning players Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are as great as always, playing Wayne’s butler, cop friend and technology guru, respectively. Caine in particular is given some deeply poignant moments of farewell to his life-long friend, Bruce. Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard is adept in a role more significant than advertisements reveal. Christian Bale turns in his best work in the trilogy, as a man who’s given up on near-everything, especially himself, and needs to give all he can to save his city.

If there’s one area in which Nolan has truly improved and expanded, it’s technical skill. “The Dark Knight Rises”, filmed mostly with IMAX cameras, is a work of massive scope and visual complexity. Its action, although rarer than expected, is crisp and clear. The punches land hard and the explosions boom big. Nolan’s handling of combat has progressed from awkward and stagy in early works to refined, masterful even.

“The Dark Knight Rises” though, for all of its spectacle and scope, its sense of conclusion, feels like ending its character’s legacy on a whimper, not a bang. Emotionally, the thing simply doesn’t hit the necessary beats to become the masterpiece it could have been. Whether its the overly-packed story, the rushed pace or the ham-fisted ending — it doesn’t matter. “Rises” never achieves the sweeping highs of its predecessor, or the genre that’s increasingly catching up to it in spectacle and complexity. The assured storytelling of “Batman Begins” isn’t here. Nor is the freewheeling anarchy that gave “The Dark Knight” its off-kilter greatness. But hell, it’s a nice big show. B