Dir. Tony Gilroy
The cinematic trilogy of Jason Bourne — amnesiac superspy on a quest to find the truth of his identity even as his own country keeps trying to hunt him down with a vast network of operatives — was, like its hero, fast, agile and impressively light on its feet. Much of that success can be attributed to its fine cast, including Matt Damon as the titular hero, and solid directors, from Doug Limon to Paul Greengrass. But the screenplays, dense with exotic locales, sudden turnabouts and surreptitious betrayals, were also far better than many of the genre’s action-ready brethren.
Now, the screenwriter of the previous films, Tony Gilroy, has taken on the directing reigns for this fourth installment of the franchise, or, if you prefer, the first reboot without the services of Damon. In his place we have a new highly trained operative, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), whose memory remains intact, but through no fault of his own, runs afoul of the government that he’s sworn to protect.
It’s not that the original Bourne has completely vanished. His visage and scowling countenance still haunt the CIA operations team that originally spawned him. As the film begins, one such high-ranking intelligence officer, Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is asked to clean up what is purporting to be a hell of a mess. A British reporter is set to release a story that tracks not just the rogue black ops programs that created Bourne, but also every other subsequent illegal operation, including one that has taken Bourne’s basic training and augmented it significantly with genetic modification, creating a small cadre of super-enhanced agents.
Faced with being outed and having to fess up to an understandably furious senate subcommittee, Byer and his people decide instead to pull the plug on the whole program, killing nearly everybody associated with it, including the field agents spread out throughout the world.
When we first meet Aaron Cross, he’s stuck alone in the Alaskan wilderness on an extensive training exercise, fending off wolves and making his way to a designated checkpoint. When a U.S. drone suddenly fires on him, he quickly susses out the situation and heads back to DC, in order to uncover the plot and save his skin in the process. Along the way, he rescues Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the lone scientific researcher from the program’s medical team still alive after everyone else in her lab was gunned down, and the two of them head out for the Philippines in order to complete Cross’ genetic modifications.
You see, Cross has an interesting fatal weakness. Before he began taking the genetically enhancing medications the lab provided for him, his IQ was actually lower than average. The drugs are the only thing enabling him to stay one step ahead of the posse of CIA agents trying to wipe him and Dr. Shearing out.
Even if, essentially, we’re watching an almost identical film to the originals — a lone agent and a beautiful woman strike out against evil government hordes and travel all over the world in an attempt to escape them — the formula is still surprisingly rich with flavor and nuance. Gilroy, whose previous work as both a writer and director includes the brilliant Michael Clayton and the snazzy Duplicity, knows how to concoct an absorbing plot, and his dialogue is both intelligent and suitably snappy. This is one film in which a beautiful scientist actually sounds like one when she speaks.
Gilroy has also wisely kept the film’s signature hyper-pace and far-flung locales. In short order we’re thrown from London to Alaska to Tokyo to Karachi, and back to northern Virginia. Still prevalent too, is the cut-and-chop editing and hand-held camera work that added an aura of authenticity to the original series. More significantly, it gives us a slightly different superagent to root for. We don’t know terribly much about Cross, other than he seems less inclined to track down his superiors than to just get out of their sights, but he’s also less wound-up and stodgy than Bourne. Instead of being a military overachiever, he’s a guy who barely made it into the service to begin with, and can’t believe what has happened to him since.
He is also dogged by nagging doubts about his role in this kind of program, despite a grim pep talk he receives from Col. Byer after one failed mission has cost civilian lives (the team, according to the Colonel is “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary” — attaboy, champ!). All of which contribute to make him at least a bit more well-rounded than Bourne, who seemed to have become a black ops agent shortly after emerging from his mother’s womb. Renner and Weisz also share a good chemistry together, keeping the film reasonably grounded, even as the story begins to wobble towards the end.
The film doesn’t really tread any new ground for the franchise, but it keeps the same kinetic structure and frantic camerawork of the first trilogy without missing a beat, which in this summer’s cinematic dog days, is not without significant merit. One gets the sense that it’s holding back a significant amount for subsequent sequels — in the course of this film Cross and the Colonel never directly confront one another — but at least it gives us something to look forward to when the summer of 2014 has exhausted every other cape, cowl and repulsor ray on its agenda.
Dir. Brad Bird
In director Brad Bird’s version of the IMF — the ultra-secret, covert division of the government that run a non-ending series of near-unimaginable capers — things go horribly wrong time and again. And it’s not just the human element: unplanned for acts of nature intervene at inopportune moments, meticulously planned operations get gummed up by unforeseen technicalities and gadgets go haywire at the worst possible times. As a near direct result of all these foibles, this blockbuster sequel to a once-proud franchise is without a doubt the best action flick of the season, if not the year.
Bird, whose biggest previous efforts were with Pixar making the redoubtable Ratatouille and The Incredibles, brings a much-needed element of inventiveness and humor to the previously ice-cold world of Ethan Hunt and co., while still commanding over a full-fledged action showcase. The sharp screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec finds Hunt (Tom Cruise) hot on the trail of a brilliant Swedish madman (Michael Nyqvist) intent on starting a nuclear war to cleanse the earth of all the horrible people on its surface. Without the support of his organization, which is forcibly “ghosted” after a catastrophic operation in Russia, Hunt and a small team of agents, including strong arm operative Jane (Paula Patton), computer expert Benji (Simon Pegg) and former field agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner), have to go it alone.
Cruise, who produced the film along with J.J. Abrams among others, takes the film by the throat. It moves at a blistering pace, jumping from country to country and ever-more complicated operation after operation, but rather than just blending into a blurring mess of CGI-enhanced stunts and explosions (see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows for that dubious experience), each mission gets its full due, stacking the deck so far against the small team that you can’t help but thrill to their narrow victories.
Bird understands the only way in which an action film can truly be stirring is to put its protagonists into such a deep hole the audience can’t see the way out for themselves. As such, the extravagant middle of the film, which finds the team leading an extremely difficult operation in Dubai amidst a roaring sandstorm, stands out as the tactical high point — one the ending, as rousing as it may be, can’t hope to match — with obstacle after obstacle thrown in the way of a successful completion. We are to understand that an enormous part of Hunt’s success is his formidable will, his refusal to accept the failure of a given plan, despite absolutely everything going wrong all around him. Naturally, there are some significant plot holes and gaps in logic (a fully-armed nuclear warhead is launched at the U.S. and our government does nothing in retaliation?), but, frankly, you’ll be having too much fun to care much about such trivialities. By not allowing his heroes to hide behind a trove of high-tech gadgetry to get them out of trouble, Bird has allowed the flawed surviving members of the IMF to flourish on their own guts and guile, which is exactly as it should be.
Dir. Marc Foster
If nothing else, you would at least hope the film answers the question of just exactly what a “quantum” of solace might entail — though we can’t blame the filmmakers for that one, the title comes from an Ian Fleming short story. The answers, such as they are, aren’t entirely illuminating (Quantum, it turns out is the name of the nefarious and all-powerful organization that Bond, still in pursuit of his girlfriend’s killers from Casino Royale, runs afoul), but no matter.
Our plot revolves around Bond’s searching out this organization and getting to the bottom of their plans, which involve overthrowing entire governments and owning large percentages of land therein (in case you’re wondering, the CIA is all-too-happy to comply with their demands — another blow to America’s wounded ego: Now, even the Brits are seen as morally superior). As for Bond, perhaps the single most telling change in this, continuing in the umpteenth rebooting of the franchise, is the fact that this Bond bleeds, bruises and broods along with the rest of us.
Long gone, it seems, is the Roger Moore-style of implacable, smug Bond, with nary a hair out of perfect alignment, even diving out of a plane at 30,000 feet. In Moore’s place stands the altogether more street thuggish Daniel Craig, perhaps the closest representation to Ian Fleming’s original character since the beginning of the series. Rather than acting as an empty vessel of Britain’s charming efficiency, Craig’s Bond is ruthless, compulsively competitive and, at the end of any number of set action pieces, covered in the grime and filth of pure combat. He might still take his martinis shaken, but he shares very little else in common with previous blue-blood versions of the character.
What isn’t so glorious about Marc Foster’s film, however, is exactly how he portrays those action pieces: staccato, blurry, and altogether jarring. Near the beginning, as Bond is chasing after yet another would-be assassin, Forster sets off his already too-frantic-by-half action scenes with shots of a concurrent horserace nearby. He might be going for something so pulse-pounding that we can’t take our eyes from the screen, but what he ends up with is motion-sickness and an almost willful incoherence, which is a grand pity, seeing how much time and effort the filmmakers have spent in order to impress us. Such is the mad pace of the film that it is only at the end, as Bond gains at least a measure of revenge, we realize the poor man has barely even bedded anyone down. A sexless Bond? We really are in a lousy economy.