“THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (2002) Review

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“THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (2002) Review

Thirty-six years ago saw the release of “The Bourne Identity”, Robert Ludlum’s first novel about the amnesiac government agent called Jason Bourne. The novel became a best-seller and spawned two sequels written by Ludlum. Then in 1988, ABC aired a two-part miniseries adaptation of Ludlum’s novel, which starred Richard Chamberlain and Jacyln Smith. The miniseries turned out to be a big ratings hit. But it did not stop there. Over fourteen years later, Universal Pictures released its own adaptation of the novel, starring Matt Damon as the amnesiac Jason Bourne.

Directed by Doug Liman, the beginning of “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” more or less followed Ludlum’s novel. Italian fisherman (instead of French) rescue an unconscious man floating adrift with two gunshot wounds in his back. The boat’s medic finds a display of a safe deposit number surgically implanted under the unknown man’s skin. The man wakes up and discovers he is suffering from extreme memory loss. Over the next few days, the man finds he is fluent in several languages and has unusual skills. But he cannot remember anything about himself or why he was in the sea. When the ship docks, the doctor sends him off to Zurich with some money to investigate the mystery of the safe deposit box. In Zurich, the man discovers money, a pistol and passports with his photograph. One of the photographs identify him as an American named Jason Bourne with an address in Paris.

Here, “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” begins to veer from both Ludlum’s novel and the 1988 miniseries. Instead of alerting the forces of terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Bourne’s trip to the bank alerted the CIA black ops program Treadstone to his whereabouts. And instead of coercing French-Canadian Marie St. Jacques to drive him to safety and using her as a hostage, Damon’s Bourne offered money to a German-born Marie Kreutz to drive him to Paris. Before they can part, a Treadstone assassin attack Bourne at his Paris apartment. Due to the attack, Bourne is forced to kill the assassin and keep Marie by his side for her protection. And with her help, he sets out to discover his true identity and the truth that led to his wounded state in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, Treadstone – led by the cankerous Alexander Conklin and the anxious Deputy Director Ward Abbott – continues sending assassins to kill Bourne and prevent him from revealing the organization’s desire to kill a volatile exiled African dictator named Nykwana Wombosi.

I might as well put my cards on the table. “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” is a terrific movie. Director Doug Liman, along with screenwriters Tony Gilory and William Blake Herron, did a first-rate job of transferring . . . well, their vision of Ludlum’s novel. Although the movie is not as faithful to the novel as the miniseries, I believe it is just as good. Liman, Gilroy and Herron decided to reject a good deal of Ludlum’s novel in order to reflect the current political climate and to conform to Liman’s opinions regarding American foreign policy. In the movie, Bourne is a CIA assassin who works for a black ops group called Treadstone that carries out unofficial hits on those they consider threats to the American government. He lost his memory after a failed attempt on the exiled Nykwana Wombosi. The movie is more of a criticism or indictment (depending on how one would view it) on U.S. foreign policy than Ludlum’s novel . But the director and the two screenwriters made sure that they retained the novel’s central theme – a CIA agent who loses his memory on the heels of a failed mission. Does this mean I believe Liman, Gilroy and Herron’s changes are superior to Ludlum’s original story? Not really. Ludlum’s tale and the 1988 adaptation were reflections of the times they hit both the bookstores and television screens. By the time “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” was in production, the political scene had change. The real Carlos the Jackal had been in prison for about seven to eight years by the time the movie went into production. And in my opinion, Liman and the two screenwriters wisely reflected this change.

“THE BOURNE IDENTITY” also reflected some first rate action sequences, thanks to Liman’s direction, Oliver Wood’s photography and especially Saar Klein’s editing. My favorite sequences include Bourne’s escape from the U.S. Embassy in Zurich, a car chase sequence through the streets of Paris, Bourne’s final encounter with Conklin and two of the latter’s flunkies inside Treadstone’s Parisian safe house and especially the fight sequence between Bourne and another Treadstone assassin named Castel. I also enjoyed John Powell’s atmospheric score for the film, which I believe more or less served as the basis for his work on the second and third BOURNE movies. And speaking of music, one could hardly discuss any BOURNE film withou mentioning Moby’s 2002 hit song, “Extreme Ways”. The lyrics to Moby’s song, supported by a very entertaining score, literally captured the nuance of the franchise’s main characters . . . especially Bourne. Is it any wonder that it has become the franchise’s theme song? Also, I have to commend Liman’s insistence upon filming“THE BOURNE IDENTITY” in Paris, especially since executives at Universal Studios wanted him to use Montreal or Prague as substitutes for the City of Lights. Mind you, both Montreal and Prague are beautiful cities. But even I would have guessed they were not really Paris in the film.

I read somewhere that Liman had considered a wide range of actors like Russell Crowe and Sylvester Stallone for the role of David Webb aka Jason Bourne. Mind you, I think Crowe could have pulled it off. But I am not so sure about Stallone. Then again, he could have done so a decade earlier. However, Liman eventually settled for Matt Damon and the rest, as they say, is history. Damon not only gave a superb performance as the introverted and haunted Bourne, he also handled some of the action scenes very well, considering this was his first time in such a physically demanding role. He also had superb chemistry with his leading lady, Franka Potente. The latter was excellent as the free-spirited Marie Kreutz, who finds herself drawn to the mysterious Bourne . . . almost against her will. Other first-rate performances include Chris Cooper as the intense and hot-tempered Alexander Conklin; Brian Cox, who performance as the cautious Ward Abbott almost strikes me as insidious; and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, whose performance as the arrogant and verbose Nykwana Wombosi pretty much lit up the screen. The movie also featured first-rate performances from two cast members who said very little. Julia Stiles did an excellent job in conveying both the professionalism and wariness of Treadstone logistics technician Nicky Parsons with very little dialogue. Clive Owen had even less to say as Treadstone assassin “The Professor” and yet, he perfectly projected an intense and intimidating presence as a government killer.

“THE BOURNE IDENTITY” is probably my second favorite movie in the franchise. Yet, it is not perfect. One of the problems I had featured the death of Treadstone assassin Castel, who jumped out of the window and killed himself, following his fight with Bourne inside the latter’s Parisian apartment. Marie asked Bourne why he did it. And honestly, I wondered why he did it myself. But Gilroy and Herron’s screenplay failed to explain Castel’s suicide. And to this day, I am still wondering why the guy jumped. Ward Abbott made the decision to shut down Treadstone, following its failure to kill Bourne. But instead of having everyone connected to Treadstone killed – something that Edward Norton’s character in “THE BOURNE LEGACY” attempted to do – Abbott only had one person bumped off. And I could not help but wondering if his efforts were half-assed. I also had a problem with the CIA’s reaction to Nykwana Wombosi’s death. Following Bourne’s failed attempt to kill him, the CIA Director had a fit over the unauthorized attempted hit on the former dictator. But when “The Professor” finally killed Wombossi, no one made a fuss or worried over the possibility that the dictator’s death might attract more attention from the media. I thought this was rather sloppy on Gilroy and Herron’s part. Finally, the movie’s second half was in danger of losing my attention, due to Liman’s slow pacing. If it were not for the sequence featuring Bourne and Marie’s visit to her friend (or step brother) Eaumon’s French farmhouse, I would have fallen asleep and missed Bourne’s final confrontation with Conklin.

What else is there to say about “THE BOURNE IDENTITY”? Like I said, it is my second favorite of the four movies in theBOURNE franchise. In its own way, it is just as good (but not better) than the 1988 miniseries that starred Richard Chamberlain. Not only did the movie featured a first-rate, if flawed screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron; it also featured fine direction by Doug Liman, along with a superb cast led by Matt Damon who proved to be an excellent Jason Bourne.

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“A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD” (2013) Review

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“A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD” (2013) Review

Five-and-a-half years following the successful release of the fourth movie in the DIE HARD movie franchise – 2007’s“LIVE FREE AND DIE HARD”, 20th Century Fox Studios release a fifth movie about the adventures of New York Police detective John McClane called “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”

A high-ranking, yet corrupt official in Moscow, Russia named Viktor Chagarin plans on incriminating political prisoner/government whistleblower and former billionaire Yuri Komarov without a fair trial when Komarov refuses to hand over a secret file believed to have convicting evidence against Chagarin. A young man assassinates a colleague of Chagarin’s and agrees to testify against Komarov for a shorter sentence. He turns out to be John “Jack” McClane Jr., Detective McClane’s estranged only son. The NYPD police officer, who has not been in touch with his son for years, learns of Jack’s situation and travels to Russia to help.

But when John arrives and approaches the courthouse that holds Jack and Komarov on trial, an explosion orchestrated by Chagarin and his henchmen disrupts the courthouse, and Jack breaks free with Komarov. After spotting Jack, John confronts him, but their dispute is cut short when Chagarin’s henchmen, led by main enforcer Alik, chase them throughout the streets of Moscow. John learns that Jack is a CIA agent and has been on a three-year mission to rescue Komarov from Chagarin’s clutches and retrieve a file that can link Chagarin and Komarov to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The file will enable the U.S. government to bring down Chagarin, who has proven to be an obstacle to U.S.-Russian relations. But the McClane men not only learn to heal long-standing family rifts, but also discover there is more to this mission than evidence against Chagarin.

“A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD” received negative reviews from movie critics. In fact, their response to the movie strongly reminded me of the negative press that the James Bond movie, “QUANTUM OF SOLACE” had received in 2008. In a way, I could see why. Both movies share two negative traits that prevented them from becoming even better films.“A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”, like the Bond film, suffered from what I liked to call the “Paul Greengrass film editing style”. I realize that this editing style has been popular with recent filmmakers who use it to trim a movie’s running time. But I can do without it. I disliked in the second and third JASON BOURNE movies. I disliked it in “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. And I also disliked it in “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”. Director John Moore and editor Dan Zimmerman used it with strong effect during the Moscow car chase, making the latter one of the most confusing car chases since the one featured in 2007’s “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”.

Moore and Zimmerman’s use of this fast speed editing style also enabled them to give “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD” the shortest running time in the franchise’s fifteen year history . . . one of 97 minutes. The idea of a DIE HARD movie running slightly over 90 minutes makes me shake my head in disbelief. Also, the plot for this latest film, penned by Skip Woods, is too complicated and quite frankly, too good to be wasted on a 90-something minutes running time. If “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD” had possessed a longer running time, Woods story could have been told with greater detail. For instance, the movie could have revealed how John learned of Jack’s arrest with greater detail. And the situation regarding Chagarin, Komarov and Jack could have been told with greater detail with a longer running time. Also, Cole Hauser could have enjoyed more screen time as Jack’s CIA partner, Mike Collins. Instead, Hauser was barely on screen for five minutes tops.

Before one begins to think I share the critics’ dislike of “A GOOD DAY TO DIE”, you will be mistaken. Because I do not share their opinion. Despite the Paul Greengrass editing style and the shorter running time, I still enjoyed the movie very much . . . in fact, more than I thought possible. As I had stated earlier, Skip Woods penned a very strong story for the movie. Yes, it featured the usual over-the-top action that has been a hallmark of the franchise for years. One of my favorite scenes proved to be John, Jack and Komarov’s escape from the CIA safe house in Moscow. It not only gave Bruce Willis (or his stunt man) another chance to prove how great he can be as on-screen badass, it gave Jai Courtney, who portrayed Jack McClane, a chance to show that his character is a badass, as well. In fact, another scene provided more great moments for both Willis and Courtney – namely the McClane men’s escape from death after they and Komarov were captured by Alix.

One of the best aspects of Woods’ screenplay proved to be the complicated story surrounding the strained relationship between Chagarin and Komarov. This storyline provided audiences an interesting peek into Russian politics – if it is somewhat accurate. I suspect that it is not completely accurate, but this is a work of fiction we are talking about, not a documentary. More importantly, Woods’ story added the Chernobyl disaster as a catalyst to the former colleagues’ estrangement . . . enabling audiences a chilling peek at the infamous Chernobyl site in the Ukraine, during the movie’s final action scene. This sequence also provided a plot twist that brought back a memories of the 1990 film, “DIE HARD 2”. The best aspect of “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD” is that the movie allowed a more satisfying portrayal of the relationship between John and Jack than “LIVE FREE AND DIE HARD” did for John and Lucy, five years ago.

Speaking of the relationship between the two McClane men, it would not have worked without the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney. I understand that the movie’s casting director considered a good number of actors – including Liam Hemsworth and James Badge Dale – before Australian actor Jai Courtney was chosen. Willis was in top form, as usual. I found Willis very effective in portraying McClane’s desire to reconcile with his son in conflict with the NYPD cop’s penchant for butting into situations where he is not wanted. And he formed a top-notch chemistry with Courtney. The latter did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s initial resentment toward John, his growing regard for the latter and intense fixation on his mission. German actor Sebastian Koch (whom I last saw in 2011’s “UNKNOWN”, gave a subtle, yet complex portrayal of Yuri Komarov, the former billionaire and criminal who found a conscious and exposed his former partner. Sergei Kolesnikov gave a solid performance as the corrupt politician Viktor Chagarin. But I found Yuliya Snigir very impressive as Komarov’s daughter Irina, who proved to be more than meets the eye. I wish I could say the same about Radivoje Bukvić, who portrayed Chagarin’s main henchman. But I found his performance a little over-the-top. It was nice to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead reprise her portrayal of Lucy McClane, and she proved to be as spunky as ever. But Cole Hauser was really effective as Mike Collins, Jack’s CIA partner. He was subtle, brutal and slightly scary. And his performance made me wish he had more scenes.

I can understand the critics’ disappointment with the shorter running time and quick flash editing in “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”. But despite these flaws, the movie still proved to be very entertaining, thanks to solid, yet slightly flawed direction by John Moore, an interesting story penned by Skip Woods and a first rate cast led by Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney.

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” (2012) Review

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“THE BOURNE LEGACY” (2012) Review

Following the success of the 2007 movie, “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”, Universal Pictures announced its intentions to release a fourth movie featuring the amnesiac CIA assassin, Jason Bourne. However, their plans nearly folded when actor Matt Damon announced that he would not do a fourth movie.

Damon’s announcement failed to put a final kibosh on Universal’s plans. Instead, the studio and writer-director Tony Gilroy went ahead with another movie about the CIA assassination programs in which Jason Bourne had participated. Instead of bringing back director Paul Greengrass, Universal and Gilroy (who had written the first three movies) hired Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner to portray a second CIA assassin – Aaron Cross. With Gilroy in the director’s chair, the results led to the fourth movie called “THE BOURNE LEGACY”.

The movie’s title came from Eric Van Lustbader’s 2004 novel, but its plot is completely different. “THE BOURNE LEGACY” introduced a third black ops program called Operation Outcome. Unlike Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar, Outcome was specifically created by the U.S. Department of Defense and it enhances the physical and mental abilities of field operatives through pills referred to as “chems”. The movie opens with one of its operatives – Aaron Cross – engaged in a training assignment in Alaska. After Cross traverses rugged terrain to a remote cabin, he meets its operator, an exiled Outcome operative, Number Three.

During Cross’ time in Alaska, the Blackbriar and Treadstone programs are publicly being exposed (during the events of the previous film, “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”), leading the FBI and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy, Blackbriar supervisor Noah Vosen, Treadstone clinical researcher Dr. Albert Hirsch and CIA Director Ezra Kramer. Kramer requests help from Eric Byer, a retired Air Force colonel responsible for overseeing the CIA’s clandestine operations. Byer, who had originally recruited Cross, discovers potentially damaging video on the Internet in which the lead researchers for Treadstone and Outcome – especially Hirsch – appear at professional functions in public. To prevent the Treadstone/Blackbriar investigation from finding and revealing Outcome’s top-secret scientific advances, Byer decides to end Outcome and kill its agents and medical personnel. He sees this sacrifice as acceptable because the government has already separately initiated next-generation “beta programs”.

Byer attempts to kill both Cross and Number Three by sending a drone bomb to destroy the cabin. Number Three is killed and Cross manages to survive, due to being outside when the bomb dropped. Byer makes another attempt to kill Cross with a second drone and unbeknownst to him, ends up killing a wolf pack. Cross learns of a massacre at Outcome’s private research lab, conducted by a chemically brainwashed scientist. The sole survivor is geneticist Dr. Marta Shearing, whom Cross later saves from CIA assassins. He hopes that Dr. Shearing can help him wean or “viral” off the chemicals and at the same time, save both of them from being killed by Byer and the Department of Defense.

When Universal first leaked news of a fourth movie with Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, I did not exactly embrace the idea. As far as I was concerned, three was enough. When Damon announced that he would not reprise the Bourne role, I felt a surge of relief. As much as I had enjoyed the third BOURNE movie, I felt it was a bit of a comedown after the first two movies. Then I heard news that Universal and Tony Gilroy was going ahead with a fourth movie . . . without Damon. Again, I dismissed the idea of going to see this new BOURNE movie, until I learned that Jeremy Renner had been cast in the lead. Since I am a fan of Renner’s, I decided to go see this fourth film. However, I did not believe I would enjoy it as much as the first three.

Like the previous three movies, “THE BOURNE LEGACY” is not perfect. One, I never understood the need for Tony Gilroy to create a third black ops program for the franchise. Considering that Treadstone and the current Blackbriar programs were in danger of exposure by the end of “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”, I was surprised that Gilroy did not simply make Cross a Blackbriar operative. In other words, I found the addition of a third black ops program rather irrelevant. Unfortunately, the movie also featured the continuing presence of CIA Director Ezra Kramer. His presence in the third movie struck me as writing blooper on Gilroy’s part. His presence in this fourth movie is a continuation of that blooper. For some reason, Gilroy decided to utilize Paul Greengrass’ shaky cam style of filming . . . much to my annoyance. My biggest problem with “THE BOURNE LEGACY” was the ending. I found it vague, rather sudden and anti-climatic. When the movie ended with Cross and Dr. Shearing somewhere in the South China Seas and Pamela Lundy in trouble with Federal authorities for revealing the details of the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs, the first words that left my mouth were “Is that it?”. As far as I was concerned, the BOURNE franchise required a fifth movie to tie up the loose plots.

Despite the ending, despite the continuing presence of Ezra Kramer and despite the Greengrass filming and editing style; I enjoyed “THE BOURNE LEGACY” very much. Who am I kidding? I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I would rank it second of the four movies. I feel that Gilroy did a slightly better job of meshing the plot from “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” with this film, than meshing the third film with the second one, “THE BOURNE SUPREMACY”. A throwaway discussion between Kramer and Noah Vosen regarding Pamela Lundy in the third film finally came to fruition by the end of this movie. The movie also explored – during most of its 135 minutes – Cross’ difficulties in dealing with his dependency upon the “chems”. Like the other three movies in the franchise, “THE BOURNE LEGACY” featured some first-rate action sequences. My favorites include Cross’ use of the wolf pack to distract the second drone bomb from himself, the massacre at the Operation Outcome lab that featured a chilling performance by Željko Ivanek, and the long chase sequence in Manila, the Philippines. But my favorite sequence featured Cross’ rescue of Dr. Shearing from the CIA assassins.

The best thing that Tony Gilroy ever did for this movie was to avoid making Aaron Cross into a Jason Bourne 2.0. He did this by creating Cross as a completely personality – verbose, more extroverted and an acute judge of character. But what really made Cross worked as a character was Jeremy Renner’s performance. Some critic once said that what was the point in watching a BOURNE movie without Matt Damon. Well, the first BOURNE production I ever saw was the 1988 miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. And he was great. I also enjoyed Damon as Bourne, but . . . honestly? I did not really miss him, due to Renner’s performance.

The movie also benefited from Rachel Weisz’s excellent performance as Operation Outcome medical researcher, Dr. Marta Shearing. Weisz’s Shearing was a quiet, intense personality, whose ordered life was thrown upside down by her brainwashed colleague and later, the CIA. Weisz was exceptional in the scene featuring the CIA assassins’ murder attempt on her. More importantly, the actress and Renner proved to have a superb and somewhat humorous screen chemistry. Another excellent performance came from Edward Norton, who portrayed the ex-Air Force colonel Eric Byer. What I liked about Norton’s performance was that he portrayed Byer without the occasional frantic behavior that marked David Strathairn or Chris Cooper’s performances. Stacy Keach, whom I have not seen in several years, portrayed a high ranking Federal official named Mark Turso. I cannot recall ever seeing him in a villainous role (at least not to my knowledge), but I must admit that I found his performance very impressive. Oscar Isaac, whom I last saw in “W.E.” and “ROBIN HOOD”, gave an effective and subtle performance as the other Outcome agent, Number Three. It was nice to see Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney again. But they were not on the screen long enough for me to judge their performances.

Like I had earlier stated, “THE BOURNE LEGACY” was not perfect. But I did enjoy it very much. And I am happy to announce that Universal has recently decided to green light a fifth film with Jeremy Renner reprising his role as Aaron Cross. His performance, along with Rachel Weisz and the rest of the cast, made this movie very enjoyable for me, along with a script that I believe was slightly better than the first and third movies. I only hope that the fifth movie will prove to be just as entertaining.

“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

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“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

One of the first hits of the year 2012 turned out to be a neat little political thriller called “SAFE HOUSE” that was directed by Daniel Espinosa. 

Penned by David Guggenheim, “SAFE HOUSE” is about a young and ambitious C.I.A. agent named Matt Weston, whose present assignment is the “housekeeper” of an Agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When ex-C.I.A. agent-turned-international criminal Tobin Frost turns himself in to a nearby U.S. consulate, Weston is informed by his superiors at Langley that Tobin will be brought to the safe house by an Agency torturer named Daniel Kiefer and his men. Weston watches the torture, until the process is interrupted by mercenaries led by a man named Vargas. He has been after Frost for some information that the latter acquired from an MI-6. Kiefer and the other C.I.A. agents are killed by Vargas and his men. And Weston escapes the safe house with Frost as his captive.

As I had stated earlier, “SAFE HOUSE” is a neat little political thriller filled with exciting chase sequences and nail-biting fight scenes. All of this was filmed in and around Cape Town, Africa; which struck me as a refreshingly original setting for a spy thriller. More importantly, screenwriter Guggenheim allowed all of the action to revolve around the computer file that the Tobin Frost character had acquired. The file contained information on the illegal activities of various intelligence officials throughout the world – including those from the C.I.A. The Vargas character had been recruited to get his hands on the file and kill Frost in the process. Due to this subplot, Guggenheim managed to introduce the element of a “mole” within the C.I.A. And the mole in question might either be Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, or the latter’s colleague, Catherine Linklater.

I cannot deny that “SAFE HOUSE” is an entertaining thriller and I could easily see why it did so well at the box office. It possessed a tight plot concerning betrayal. The movie also questioned Weston’s determination to maintain his C.I.A. career by allowing Frost to recount his own intelligence career and the circumstances that led him to turn rogue. However . . . it was not a perfect movie. It has its share of flaws that will never allow it to be considered one of the best spy thrillers to come out of Hollywood.

I have complained in past reviews about the new style of cinematography and editing that has prevailed in action-adventures since the BOURNE movies directed by Paul Greengrass. Yep . . . the same type of cinematography, direction and pacing is also prevalent in “SAFE HOUSE”, thanks to director Daniel Espinoza, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Rick Pearson. Oh well. I suppose one has to endure some unpleasant aspects for the sake of a decent story. Speaking of the story . . . well, how can I say this? I enjoyed it. But I must admit that I found it rather predictable. It did not take me very long to figure out the “mole” who had sent Vargas to kill Frost. And I managed to figure out Weston and Frost’s fates at least a half hour before the movie ended.

Thankfully, “SAFE HOUSE” provided plenty of first-rate performances that allowed me to . . . somewhat overlook the movie’s flaws. Some of my favorite Denzel Washington roles have always been those that reeked of moral ambiguity. And Tobin Frost proved to be one of his most ambiguous roles to date. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by his character’s goal by the film’s last twenty minutes. I had assumed that his position as a rogue agent was a means to bring justice to the “mole” within the C.I.A. or in protest of some operation that threatened innocents. I was wrong. His actions had been purely motivated by greed. Yet, I could not help cheering him on, as he managed to evade his pursuers throughout the movie. Ryan Reynolds portrayed a less ambiguous role – namely the inexperienced C.I.A. agent Matt Weston, who has ambitions to rise within the Agency. Reynolds is already in his mid-30s, yet he did a first-rate job in capturing the naivety and ambitions of someone who could be at least a decade younger. This allowed Reynolds convey Weston’s gradual maturity with great skill. By the end of the movie, his Weston almost seemed like a completely different from the young man at the beginning of the film.

“SAFE HOUSE” also boasted some solid performances from Sam Shephard, who portrayed the garrulous C.I.A. Director Harlan Whitford; Vera Farmiga as C.I.A. operative Catherine Linklater, who seems determined to believe that Weston is a fellow conspirator of Frost’s; Liam Cunningham as the MI-6 agent who provided Frost with the files; Rubén Blades as a former contact of Frost’s, whose help he seeks in a local Cape Town township; Robert Patrick, who gave his character – C.I.A. torturer Daniel Kiefer – a sharp air of professionalism; and Nora Arnezeder, as Whitford’s French girlfriend, who left confused by his sudden determination to distance himself from her. My favorite supporting performance came from Brendan Gleeson, whose portrayal of Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, seemed to rival Washington’s when in regard to moral ambiguity. Gleeson injected enough mystery into the character to make a viewer wonder if he is the mole or not. At the same, it is quite apparent that he cares about Weston’s career and safety.

“SAFE HOUSE” may not be the best spy thriller to come along in quite a while. I found the plot rather predictable and I was not that impressed by the Greengrass-style photography and editing. But I cannot deny that Daniel Espinoza directed an entertaining thriller, thanks to a solid script written by David Guggenheim and an excellent cast led by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.

“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” (2007) Review

“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” (2007) Review

“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” marked the adaptation of author Robert Ludlum’s last novel about the amnesiac CIA agent/assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Considering that the first two movies – “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (2002) and “THE BOURNE SUPREMACY” (2004) – barely resembled the novels from which they were adapted. one can honestly say the same about “ULTIMATUM”. Most diehard fans of the novels would obviously be upset over these loose adaptations. But since I am not a big fan, it did not really bother me. But this last movie did continue the saga that began in the first movie. And in a surprising way.

Before I saw the movie, I had heard rumors that production on it began at least six months after the events of “SUPREMACY”. The rumor turned out to be slightly false. The majority of the movie was set six weeks after the 2004 film.  The first scene, which began in Moscow, occurred after Bourne had killed Marie Kreutz’s murderer Krill during a high speed chase and apologized to Irena Neski for murdering her parents. Then the story jumped another six weeks. But screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns managed to plant a surprise within three-quarters into the film that has strong connections to“SUPREMACY”‘s final scene in New York City.

As for the rest of the movie, it turned out to be high-octane action thriller and mystery. Upon his arrival in Paris by train, Bourne reads an article that revealed his past – including his relationship with Marie – and his connections to Treadstone. The article also exposured a new CIA assassination program called “Blackbriar”. Realizing that the reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) of THE GUARDIAN might have a source within the C.I.A., Bourne heads for London and attempts to help the reporter evade capture and possible death at the hands of a Blackbriar assassin named Paz (Edgar Ramirez). Bourne fails to save Ross and he spends the rest of the film tracking down the journalist’s source – a CIA section chief named Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton). He also has to deal with a paronoid C.I.A. Deputy Director official named Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who wants Daniels dead for treason. Vosen also wants Bourne dead, because of the latter’s suppresssed knowledge of the Treadstone program and the Blackbriar programs. Along the way, Bourne acquires the help of former Treadstone handler, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) and C.I.A. Deputy Director, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who finds herself working with Vosen to track him down.

There were three sequences that I found well-written and very exciting:

*Bourne’s attempts to keep Ross alive in London.

*Bourne and Nicky’s adventures in Tangiers, while dealing with Blackbriar assasin Desh (Joey Ansah).

*Bourne’s memories of his true self’s [David Webb] decision to become a Treadstone assassin.

I found a good deal of Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi’s screenplay rather excellent. And I have to take my hat off to the writers for creating an exciting script. But . . . I have to point out a few flaws. One – what happened to C.I.A. Director Marshall (Tomas Arana) from the previous film? According to the 2007 movie, C.I.A. Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) had approved of the new Blackbriar program. But the Blackbriar program was first introduced by Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) in the first film. Only Marshall could have approved to jump start the program, not Kramer. Two, Nicky Parsons had claimed that she and Bourne had shared a past . . . in Paris. I found this claim rather startling, considering that the previous movies had never hinted of any romance between the two. The only past that Nicky and Bourne could have shared was one between handler and assassin in Paris, along with his interrogation of her in Berlin.  The action in the movie’s first 45 minutes occurred a little too fast for my tastes and with very little breaks. I think Greengrass and Gilroy seemed bent upon speeding up the movie’s pacing just a little too unnecessarily. And three, the final scene featured fugitive Nicky Parsons learning about the exposure of the Blackbriar and Treadstone assassin programs on the news . . . and the arrests of Vosen, Kramer and psychologist Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney). Frankly, I found this conclusion unrealistic. Yes, one can consider it a crowd pleaser, but there is no way on earth the C.I.A. would allow its dirty secrets (at least recent ones) to be aired on any national news program. And I doubt that Landy would have sent Vosen’s secret files to the media – not if she wants to maintain her career at the agency. Chances are the C.I.A. would have suppressed news of the black-ops programs and killed Vosen, Hirsch and Kramer discreetly.

As for the acting – well it was top notch as usual. In what turned out to be his last “BOURNE” film (so far), Damon made the Jason Bourne [David Webb] role as his own. Julia Stiles continued to prove, as she had done in “SUPREMACY” that she and Damon have great screen chemistry . . . despite the discomfort and awkwardness between the two characters. This awkwardness came about Bourne’s revelation of his distaste of his role as an assassin and a scene in which Nicky changed her appearance, dredging up memories of Marie doing the same in the first film. Joan Allen’s portrayal of Pamela Landy was marvelous as usual. In fact, I believe that her performance in this movie was a minor improvement over the second film. Edgar Ramirez gave an intriguing performance as Blackbriar assassin Paz. Paddy Considine was effectively paranoid as the doomed reporter Simon Ross. And both David Strathairn and Albert Finney proved to be remarkably creepy and unpleasant. Although I believe that Strathairn was as good as Brian Cox, I found him to be an improvement over the slightly over-the-top Chris Cooper (as Alexander Conklin).  Somewhat.  He had his moments of being overly dramatic.

Paul Greengrass’ direction seemed top notch. But I have one major complaint. I had barely tolerated Greengrass’ handheld photography in “SUPREMACY”. In “ULTIMATUM”, my toleration nearly went down with the Titanic. I almost had a headache dealing with the shaky camera work. My other complaint deals with this movie’s rendition of Moby’s song, “Extreme Ways”. Quite frankly, I hated it. I hated Moby’s new updated version of it and wish that the producers had stuck with the old one.

Despite some of these changes, the hand held photography and what I believe were flaws in the script, “ULTIMATUM” proved to be just as exciting as the first two movies. And together, Damon, Greengrass, Kilroy, along with Doug Liman and Universal Pictures created a first-rate movie trilogy and franchise.

“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

With the disappointing summer movie season of 2010 finally over, moviegoers received one of its first releases for the fall season. The movie in question happened to be a tight little thriller about an American assassin working on a job in Italy called”THE AMERICAN”.

Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, ”THE AMERICAN” is a film adaptation of ”A Very Private Gentleman”, Martin Booth’s 1990 novel about an assassin named Jack, who is hired to construct a rifle for another assassin in a small town in Italy called Castel del Monte. During his stay there, Jack befriends a friendly, yet observant priest named Father Benedetto; and falls for a young prostitute named Clara. He also tries to prevent himself from becoming the target of another assassin.

I had mixed feelings about going to see this movie. After watching it, my feelings about it remained mixed. One, I managed to predict the end of this movie before I even saw it. And I have never read Booth’s novel. The ending seemed even more apparent, considering the movie’s style and story. Two, the pacing struck me as being unnecessarily slow in some scenes. Now, I am not demanding that Corbijn should have paced ”THE AMERICAN” with the same timing as any of the recent Jason Bourne movies. After all, it is basically a character study of an assassin who has come to realize that he has been in the killing game too long. But there were moments when the camera lingered too lovingly upon some of Jack’s more mundane tasks that I would not have minded avoiding. One last complaint I have about ”THE AMERICAN” is that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay never made it clear who was behind the attempts to kill Jack in Sweden and the assassin who stalked him in Castel del Monte. Mind you, I had a pretty good idea on the person’s identity. Unfortunately, the script never really made it clear.

But there were aspects of ”THE AMERICAN” that I enjoyed. I found George Clooney’s portrayal of the world weary assassin well done. In fact, I could honestly say that he did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s mixture of professional wariness, emotional bankruptcy and hopes of a romantic future with the prostitute, Clara. The role of Jack might prove to be one of his better ones. Both Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido, who portrayed Father Benedetto and Clara respectively, gave Clooney excellent support. So did actress Thekla Reuten, who portrayed Mathilde, the assassin that commissioned Jack to construct a rifle for her. However, there were times when she conveyed the femme fatale persona just a bit too thick.

Joffe’s screenplay almost seemed to strike a balance between an in-depth character study and a small, taunt thriller. I say almost, due to the movie’s occasional slow pacing and a vague subplot regarding a threat to Jack’s life. But director Corbijn did effectively utilize some tense scenes included in Joffe’s script. The two best scenes featured Jack’s final encounter with the assassin hired to stalk him around Castel del Monte and the explosive finale that featured a slight, yet surprising twist.

”THE AMERICAN has its share of faults. Nor would I consider to be one of the year’s best movies. But I must admit that George Clooney’s performance as the world-weary assassin, Jack, might be one of his better roles. And director Anton Corbijn managed to strike a nice balance between an in-depth character study and a tense-filled action thriller. I could honestly say that ”THE AMERICAN” might be one of 2010’s more “interesting” films.

“SALT” (2010) Review

 

“SALT” (2010) Review

It has been a while since I last saw a movie directed by Philip Noyce. In fact, the last one I can recall was 2002’s ”THE QUIET AMERICAN”. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he had been chosen to direct Angelina Jolie’s new action thriller called”SALT”

The movie told the story of a CIA agent named Evelyn Salt, who is accused of being a KGB sleeper agent. She eventually goes on the run to try to clear her name. At the order of her supervisor, Ted Winters, Salt interrogates a Russian defector named Orlov, who tells her about an operation organized by a powerful Russian since the Cold War; which will lead to the destruction of the United States. Orlov mentions that at the funeral of the late Vice President in New York City, the visiting Russian President will be killed by Russian spy – Evelyn Salt. Shaken at the accusation, Salt attempts to contact her husband Mike, a German arachnologist, fearing for his safety. Meanwhile, Orlov escapes, which prompts Salt to escape. This causes Winters and a counterintelligence agent named Peabody to believe she is a spy. After finding her husband missing at their apartment, Salt grabs a few essentials and continues her flight. After barely escaping a highway pursuit, Salt takes a bus to New York City to deal with the threat of the Russian president being assassinated.

When I first learned about the plot for ”SALT”, the first thing that came to mind was that it was a female variation on the recent BOURNE trilogy, starring Matt Damon. And in a way, it is. After all, Jolie portrays a CIA agent, who finds herself pursued by her former colleagues. And her character performs stunts that would make Damon . . . or his stunt man rather proud. However, after the movie’s setting had switched to New York City, Kurt Wimmer and Oscar winner Brian Hegeland’s script took an unexpected turn that left me a little breathless. And if that was not enough, another plot twist awaited, once the movie shifted back to Washington D.C. and a plot to kill the U.S. president. Another aspect of ”SALT” that surprised me was that the movie was released on the heels of news about a real Russian spy ring that was recently discovered in the U.S.

Angelina Jolie has come a long way since her two LARA CROFT movies. In her portrayal of Jennifer Salt, she is more assured and matured. And thankfully, she has also dropped the poseur attitude that slightly marred her performances as Lara Croft. Not only did Jolie do a first-rate job with her action sequences, she skillfully guided the emotional turmoil that her character endures throughout the movie. Adding solid support is Liev Schreiber, who portrayed her supervisor, Ted Winters. Beneath the charm and intelligence, Schreiber did a great job in conveying Ted’s emotional reaction to the possibility that Salt might be a Russian deep-cover mole. And Chiwetel Ejiofor was effective as the intense and determined counterintelligence agent, Peabody, who genuinely believes that Salt is a mole. He managed to convey this without indulging in any hammy acting.

Daniel Olbrychski gave a fascinating performance as the Russian defector, Orlov, who accused Salt of being a Russian agent. August Diehl portrayed Salt’s husband, the soft-spoken arachnologist, Michael Krause. Although he hardly had any lines in the film, he quietly conveyed his role as Salt’s emotional center. I was surprised to see Hunt Block, who portrayed the U.S. president. I have not seen him since the 1980s nighttime drama, ”KNOT’S LANDING”. I was also surprised to see Andre Braugher in the movie. He portrayed one of the President’s aides, yet he only had one or two lines. At first, I thought his career had really taken a nose dive, until I remembered that he was on the TNT television series called ”MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE”. So, how did he get stuck in a role that called for only two lines?

Noyce worked well with cinematographer Robert Elswit and film editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy to create some very interesting action scenes . . . especially the fantastic sequence featuring the attempt to assassinate the Russian president in New York. Jolie contributed to these scenes with some of her own stunt work. Yes, I realize that some of the stunts seemed implausible – especially one that featured a jump by Salt from a Washington D.C. expressway to the top of a moving truck. But I have seen stunts in other movies that I found a lot more implausible. It seemed a pity that the movie was set either during the late fall or the winter. Although the cold season did not take any atmosphere away from the Manhattan sequences, I cannot say the same about the Washington D.C. exterior shots. I have always believed that the capital looked a lot better on film during the spring, summer and early fall seasons.

In the end, I enjoyed ”SALT” very much. I believe that it is one of the better summer movies this year. Director Philip Noyce did a first-class job with a solid script written by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Hegeland, and skillful performances from a cast led by Angelina Jolie. I noticed that the movie ended on a vague note that I would usually find annoying. But considering rumors that a sequel might follow, I can give it a pass.