Friday, April 5, 2013

End of a Dangerous Legacy

     In this little bounty of home viewing options I shall review yet another remake of one of my favorite films (this time in Mandarin), yet another semi-relaunch of a classic action thriller franchise starring Jeremy Renner, and yet another found footage film that is also yet another buddy cop movie.  Has anyone seen my enthusiasm?  Oh well, one of these DID exceed my expectations.  It wasn't the one I was pinning my hopes on, however, that was...

  Dangerous Liasons - The 1980's Stephen Freers directed version of this story starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeifer, and Uma Thurman is one of my favorite films ever.  Efforts to remake it have never been all THAT successful, but everyone wants to try.  Milos Forman tried in 1989, just one year later, renaming the film Valmont.  Even with Colin Firth in the lead role, it was a pale pretender.  Ten years later, the story was told again, but adapted a bit to set it in a high school, and renamed Cruel Intentions.  It wasn't much better, despite having about the best cast of young actors and actresses you could ask for at the time. (Geller, Phillipe & Witherspoon, OH MY!) Then there was a TV show in 2003.  I never saw it, but the critical reception was mixed at best.  Now, we have a new version from Korean director Jin-Ho Hur, set in occupied China during World War Two.
     I regret to say that this picture completely fails to capture the raw power, sensuality and darkness of the original.  It is interesting the way that they altered minor plot points to help secure the film in the time period and place.  The problem isn't really with the screenplay.  THAT was pretty good.
     The acting is a fairly mixed bag.  Accomplished actresses Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero) as the "virtuous and unattainable conquest" and Lisa Lu (The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club) in the expanded role of the matronly aunt are both quite good, as you would expect them to be.  The show is stolen, however, by Cecilia Cheung (new to me) in the Madame Merteuil role (here renamed Miss Mo), as it should be.  Her performance, however, is still nowhere near the par set by Ms. Close.  The real problem here is that I just didn't buy Dong-gun Jang in the Valmont role.  There was nothing dangerously sexy about him.
     The other problem with the film is that is all just a little too sleek and free in tone.  Cinematographer Byung-seo Kim does some really beautiful work, but the lushness of it all works against the story thematically.  The original film was certainly elegant, but its overall feel was more regal and stuffy.  There was something about those women being strapped and bound into corsets and dresses and wigs that spoke of captivity and repression.  The extremes that free spirited souls were willing to go to in order to escape this physical, financial, sexual, mental and emotional bondage and express themselves is one of the core ideas that makes this story great.  I got none of that in this version.  Without the yin and yang of repression and sexual backlash, this war of the sexes tale loses most of its firepower...2 of 5 stars.

  End of Watch - Writer/director David Ayer was only really familiar to me before I saw this film for writing the script to Training Day.  That, and positive buzz from the festival circuit, gave me some measure of hope that I was really going to enjoy End of Watch but it just didn't quite do it for me.  Unfortunately, both of the big problems land squarely in Mr. Ayer's lap.
     Can fake found footage film making be finally finished?  I, for one, have had it.  It was revolutionary in The Blaire Witch project.  Today...blase, blase, blase.  This movie actually takes it to a whole new level, where the cops are making videos while on the beat and the crooks are making videos as they commit the crimes.  If they'd put down their own cameras for a second they could probably watch their opponents' every move on YouTube.  This gimmick (I won't even call it a directorial flourish) plays about as ludicrously as I've made it sound.  Again, I ask: Since the found footage snake is obviously eating its own tale, can we just stand back and let it finish its meal?  Thank you.
     So, besides coming off like Cops meets Lethal Weapon live tweeted, the other problem is with the script.  End of Watch is SUCH a stereotypical buddy cop movie.  I spent almost the entire run time going, "Oh, that's just like in _________, only shot on much lower quality film".  The screenplay's only saving grace lies in the dialogue between the two main characters as they ride around in their squad car.  Fragments of that are actually quite witty.
     Which leads to the real bright point of the film: Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena's performances.  They have great onscreen chemistry, and their interaction is THE reason to check out this picture (once).  This should be a real breakout role for Pena, who actually manages to upstage his far more famous co-star.  Together they are able to overcome the predictability of the movie and make it enjoyable for scant moments...but only moments...3 of 5 stars.

  The Bourne Legacy - Since his Oscar nomination for The Hurt Locker, actor Jeremy Renner has somehow morphed into Hollywood's new go-to action hero.  While I would love to see him do something with a little more meat like that again, I grudgingly have to admit that I am beginning to really LIKE him as an action hero.  His characters are smart and interesting and he never looks like he's TRYING to come across as tough or capable.  With the parade of blustering buffoons that the genre has tried to push on America for decades, he (along with Daniel Craig) really stands apart as a subtler, more human alternative.  And it's working.  He contributed to granting Mission Impossible a far better relaunch than I had ever expected in Ghost Protocol and now he's done the same thing leading the cast of the newest entry in the Bourne franchise.
     Part of what makes Legacy work is that Renner is not playing Jason Bourne.  He is a NEW character set in the WORLD of the Bourne films.  Photos of the fugitive Bourne make it quite clear that IF Bourne appears with Aaron Cross (the new character) in a future film, the intent is still for Matt Damon to play that role.  In this way, Renner is not forced to try and out-Bourne Damon.  Instead, his performance is allowed to stand on its own merit, and it stands quite well.
     He gets able assistance from a stronger ensemble of talented actors than you usually get in an action thriller.  Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, Corey Stoll, Zeljko Ivanek, Albert Finney and David Straitharn all added to my enjoyment of the film.  Oscar Isaac is particularly engaging in a small role. I've been hungry to see more from this actor ever since Drive. I can't wait for Inside Llewyn Davis.
     Writer/director Tony Gilroy has collaborated on the script for every Bourne film (on this one with Dan Gilroy) except Supremacy, which he wrote alone.  This is the first film in the franchise that he has also directed, although he does have some impressive directing creds such as Michael Clayton.  I won't pretend that this picture is the second coming of the The Bourne Identity just because I like Jeremy Renner.  It lacks a lot of the sense of mystery and intrigue that made that movie so riveting.  Legacy is more of a straight-up action flick.  It's also one of the best straight-up action flicks released in 2012...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Related Articles: Muppet Impossible: Life or Death Protocol (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol review)

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