As “The Expendables 2” rolls into theaters across the globe (look for the review next week), the 2012 summer movie comes to a close — and I honestly can’t remember ever being more depressed as a moviegoer.
It seems customary for critics to bemoan the state of contemporary entertainment every summer, and they are quickly dismissed by those who claim that we expect too much from movies.
“It’s not art,” they say. “Just turn off your brain and enjoy.”
Problem is, I expect terrifyingly little from mass-marketed movies these days. I just want to be engaged — not necessarily educated, or illuminated, or shown something I haven’t seen before. Just engaged — or even simply distracted.
Generally speaking, my expectations have been broken down, bit by bit, year after year — and all that remains now is a desperate yearning to have my mind taken off my troubles for two hours. It’s not a lot to ask. But apparently the task continues to elude movie studio execs, who can’t even keep theaters stocked with one interesting new release each week.
Thank the cinema gods that this week’s pick, a wholly unnecessary but still marginally entertaining Jason Bourne spin-off, isn’t completely worthless, and actually verges on being — gasp! — consistently engaging. But I must admit, I’m awful tired of, “It’s not bad,” passing as an acceptable recommendation.
The Bourne movies have long appealed to sophisticated action fans — generally older, wiser, and aware of the fact that, while quality fights and chase sequences are key to the success of any action movie, the ones truly worth watching should offer more than a constant, meaningless barrage of chaotic kinetics.
In order for the action to really deliver, it must offer weight and a sense of consequence, and the only way that can be accomplished is if the filmmaker provides proper story and character development. If the viewer cares about what is happening on screen, then well-choreographed action can become that much more effective.
The Bourne films — starting with Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” in 2002, followed by “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” both helmed by Paul Greengrass — have always aimed to construct impressive action sequences in the context of a broader character-driven, politically charged narrative, and they have been admirable in intent, if not always execution. With the exception of Greengrass’ “Supremacy,” I’ve always found them to be a little too overwrought, and rather bogged down by their overtly serious nature. But in a genre where little if anything is ever taken seriously, it’s at least refreshing to see an action franchise that tries to be “more.”
This spin-off (skillfully directed by veteran screenwriter and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tony Gilroy, of “Michael Clayton” fame) uses the Jason Bourne saga as a backdrop to tell the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who, like Bourne, was part of a government research program aimed at creating physically and intellectually superior super-spies.
Unlike Bourne, Cross remembers who he is and what he’s done, and becomes the target of government assassins once the Bourne situation goes public. Evading his pursuers by use of his increased physical and mental agility — made possible only by the pills issued to him by his former superiors — Cross seeks out Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a biochemist whose knowledge of the science behind the program makes her a target as well. She’s also Cross’ only hope to replenish his pill supply, as withdrawal begins to break down his mind and body.
“The Bourne Legacy” offers the goods for action fans, including an impressive (if slightly protracted) climactic chase scene that pits Cross and the doctor against the dual threats of a genetically engineered mercenary and an entire city police force. Holding it all together is a strong central performance from Renner, whose natural likeability elicits immediate sympathy and makes Damon’s absence a non-issue.
Although the film drags a bit toward the end and attempts to include too many story threads from the previous Bourne movies (neither David Strathairn nor Joan Allen really needed to be included in this installment), fans of the series are likely to find “The Bourne Legacy” enjoyable enough, and an appropriate continuation of the Bourne saga.