Friday, 2 September 2016

The Bourne Legacy

Jason Bourne has resurfaced, a reporter for the Guardian is writing about Blackbriar and the CIA is in full damage control mode. They bring on Edward Norton to assess the situation and navigate the fallout. His plan: Close down everything that can be traced to Blackbriar, including the completely separate Outcome program. All over the globe, Outcome agents, physically and mentally enhanced through a virus, are being poisoned or taken out by other means. Only Jeremy Renner manages to evade the drones send to kill him and is searching for a way to ensure his supply of the enhancing chemicals he needs.

Such is the plot of The Bourne Legacy, the Jeremy Renner spin-off to the Bourne trilogy. On release it got middling reviews. However, I wanted to give the movie a second chance, seeing as there’s a new Bourne movie in cinemas right now. And honestly, what a nice surprise this film was. I didn’t remember too much from the last (and only) time I watched it, except for the fact that towards the third act there is a period without action that goes on too long followed by a motorcycle chase that goes on way too long. Some of that is still true, but apart from that, The Bourne Legacy is actually really good.

First, the story is actually pretty great. The Bourne trilogy, great as it is, tends to blend together for a lot of people, because the story follows roughly the same structure each time. The Bourne Legacy keeps some of that but offers a few nice twists. The team around Edward Norton for example, trying to limit the damage that the revelation of Jason Bourne and Blackbriar, are constantly reacting to the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, which takes place at the same time.

Another nice variation is the Outcome program itself. Whereas Treadstone and Blackbriar worked with behavioural modification, Outcome is based on chemistry. Also, throughout the film we get the sensation that Outcome agents are also used differently. The first time we meet Aaron Cross, our protagonist, he is absolving a training course for Outcome agents in the Canadian wilderness. In a flashback, we see Aaron Cross after a mission, in a warzone. Compare this to Blackbriars urban infiltration agents.

Cross is definitely closer to the classic special forces action hero, but he has the same air of competence around him that makes Bourne so compelling to watch. An early scene shows him going up against a military drone, switching between him and the drone control room. The cold, almost bored atmosphere in the control room contrasts brilliantly with Cross’ laser-focussed action. Renner conveys the feeling that he is expending exactly the amount of energy that is needed to take down the drone, not a bit more or less. And when he does, everything flips. The control room is taken over by confusion, while Renner calms down instantly and focusses on the next goal.

But action is nothing without character, and here, The Bourne Legacy shines just as well. Cross is different from Bourne. He has different goals and a different past. Just like Bourne, he is driven by his main weakness. Bourne is trying to overcome his amnesia, while Cross needs to figure out a way to beat his dependency on the skill-enhancing chemicals. However, just quitting isn’t an option, since he is still hunted. And apart from that, Cross gets to show a little bit of wit and charm as well. Edward Norton also plays a very compelling antagonist. He isn’t simply hunting Cross, he has a bigger mission and Cross is part of it. We see him in meetings trying to convince his superiors of the sacrifices that are necessary to survive the revelations of The Bourne Ultimatum. Finally, there is Rachel Weisz, who plays a doctor helping Aaron Cross. She starts off strong and plays the trauma she goes through very convincingly, however, of all the characters, she suffers most in the third act and ends the film almost Bond-girl-like.

And that’s really where the problem lies. The first hour of this movie is absolutely spectacular. The action takes what we know from Jason Bourne and re-contextualizes it, puts it in different settings. The characters are different, but clearly belong in this universe. It is a brilliant spin-off, until it starts spinning its wheels without moving anywhere in the third act. There are a few scenes of Aaron Cross showing off his infiltration skills, which are fine, but when it comes to the final action scene, a bike chase, it just goes on too long. Not only that, it goes on for too long, comes to an end, and then starts again, just to go on for a few more minutes. The action is fine, but the pacing is off. And then the film doesn’t do itself any favours by ending in the most clichéd James Bond ending you could think of.

So that’s it. The Bourne Legacy, a great spin-off that just doesn’t stick the landing. Having seen Jason Bourne, the newest entry in the franchise, I have to say, I prefer Legacy. It is a more uneven film, certainly, and no moment in Jason Bourne falls as low as The Bourne Legacy does towards the end, but Jason Bourne also never reaches the same heights.

Suicide Squad

DC is really having a tough year. First, public opinion turned on the hugely anticipated Batman V. Superman – Dawn of Justice when they, in a completely baffling marketing move, included Doomsday in a trailer. Because Batman and Superman on screen together, duking it out, was obviously not going to be enough of a draw… Then of course the movie came out and just wasn’t great. Some people liked it, me included, to a certain degree, but the flaws were obvious. The release of the Ultimate Cut might have improved the movie a bit, but the cynicism of cutting the film apart to squeeze some extra money on the home video release left a bitter taste. And then there’s Suicide Squad…

Suicide Squad came with high anticipation, thanks to a stellar marketing campaign, a great cast and a director with a distinctive voice. But then the rumours started and talk of reshoots and competing cuts made people wary. And now it’s out and is not receiving the warmest reception, although it is making a lot of cash at the box office. So what’s the deal here?

At the beginning we meet Amanda Waller, who is proposing the formation of a squadron of the worst criminals in order to prepare for the future in the aftermath of Batman V. Superman. In the event of another meta-human crisis, she proposes to send in expendable forces in the form of Will Smith’s Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Cara Delevigne’s Enchantress and a bunch of assorted baddies. But when Enchantress turns out to be hard to control and sparks an incident in Midway City, she has to put her Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad, to use earlier than she thought. But their mission is complicated further by the Joker’s attempts to free Harley Quinn.

Despite everything I’m about to say about this film, it’s fun. Will Smith, Margot Robbie and (surprisingly) Jay Courtenay as Captain Boomerang are so much fun to watch, the film has a cool look to it and from time to time the movie everyone was expecting shines through.

However, damn this movie is a mess. After Batman V. Superman was received badly, the stakes for this were high, which is why I get that a studio would want to get involved in the editing process. But there’s a hint of Fant4stic to this, as they did not manage to give Joel Kinnaman the same haircut he had during principal photography in the reshoots. Now it’s at least the same colour, so we’re not quite at a Kate-Mara-wig-situation yet, but this is the level of chaos you can expect for this movie.

If anything saves this movie and makes it watchable, it’s the characters in the movie. Or… at least three or four of them. Will Smith plays his usual Will Smith character, which might be disappointing, but he hasn’t done that for so long, so it’s like meeting an old friend. He does also manage to give Deadshot a little bit of an edge, so he fits in quite well, because a little bit of an edge is all we’re going to get. Harley Quinn is absolutely delightful and completely insane. I hope that WB stick to their plan of more Harley-centred films. However, they should polish the writing on her, because a lot of her stuff worked despite the writing rather than because of it (and some of it didn't, at all). And maybe the biggest surprise to me was that I didn’t hate Jay Courtenay. In fact, Captain Boomerang is great as a comic relief from time to time. Once again though, a lot of rough edges have been sanded off here. Finally, El Diablo is much better than expected and gets some really cool moments.

The editing in this movie is absolutely terrible. There are so many weirdly placed flashbacks, the final fight scene is shot and edited to minimise enjoyment, with lots of smoke and little light, and most of the characters get nothing to do for the whole movie only to get a small moment shoe-horned in towards the end. Katana doesn’t even get that. They literally spell it out for the audience that she has a sword that steals souls, which she then proceeds to not do for the entire movie. Even Harley Quinn, who is great fun, does almost nothing to advance the main story until the very last moment.
If you listen to Joss Whedon talking about his experience on the Avengers movies, those movies are crafted incredibly methodically to allow for every member of the team to contribute, get their character moments AND also to look really cool at some point. Some members of the Suicide Squad barely get one of those (This would be a great moment to mention Killer Croc, because where else would I, he does nothing).

This film is ultimately an exercise in frustration. Rumours about deleted scenes show that there was a much darker, more interesting movie in here. One in which the Squad wasn’t just a bunch of heroes with bad behaviour, but actual villains. One in which the Joker isn’t wasted on a handful of scenes. Seriously, I wanted to write a paragraph about him, but I wouldn’t know what to write. I liked Jared Leto in the role, but there’s so little of him. There are so many more things I could mention, like the intensely dissatisfying third act.

What annoys me most is the idiocy behind it. I have given WB the benefit of the doubt so far, but at this point, any good movie they deliver will take me by surprise. They are trying to ape Marvel as much as they can, but the one thing that makes Disney and Marvel Studios so good at what they do is working together with their talent and providing an infrastructure geared towards quality. WB however seems to be actively working against the talented people they hire. Man of Steel came out in 2013, three years ago, and was supposed to be the start of DC's cinematic universe. Three years, but when it came to Suicide Squad, David Ayer had six weeks to come up with a script and start shooting. That's the attitude I have when it comes to writing term papers, but my term papers don't cost 175 million dollars. That's just bad business. And not only that, people didn’t respond to the dour tone of BVS, so they made Suicide Squad, a movie about the bad guys, which has every reason in the world to be dark, lighter. This kind of reactionary behaviour speaks to the fact that no one at WB has a cohesive vision for their universe. Man of Steel promised a serious deconstruction of superheroes, which BVS tried and failed to deliver. Suicide Squad wasn’t even allowed to try.