Tag: espionage (page 1 of 2)

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

I’ve said in the past that the 21st century is more a Jason Bourne era than one for James Bond. Bond was struggling, torn between the old school sensibilities of fifty years of tales and the pace and focus of the modern age. While Jason Bourne has always had a problem or two (which I’ll get to), the films did a fine job of filling that cutthroat espionage action thriller niche that Bond wasn’t quite adept at filling any more, or so it seemed. Skyfall proved Bond can and does work in this era, and rather than respond with a new film with Matt Damon, Bourne goes a bit sideways with The Bourne Legacy, a movie meant to both expand Jason Bourne’s world and introduce us to a character that can do what Bourne does since Matt Damon was on the fence about the character for a while.

Courtesy Universal Studios

Treadstone, the super-secret government-funded project team that essentially created Bourne, is under threat of being exposed thanks to Bourne’s actions in The Bourne Supremacy, which takes place at the same time as this story. To cover their tracks, the people in charge begin liquidating their assets, from agents currently in the field to research and development teams trying to perfect the Super-Soldier Serum. (Wait, sorry, got my notes mixed up) One asset that escapes liquidation is Aaron Cross, who is part of a test group for a pill-based version of the genome-rewriting magic that makes ordinary men and women into super-assassins. He tracks down one of the doctors behind the secret formula and rescues her from her liquidators, fleeing to find more of his power-up pills before the bad guys can sic an even nastier surprise on them.

The Bourne Legacy is, from the outset, less concerned about its former leading man and more about expanding the world in which he lives. We’re given more of a vertical slice of many of the moving parts in the cloak-and-dagger world of this shadow government, with lots of men in suits and ties in expensive settings glaring at each other and making dire predictions and veiled accusations. It’s interesting that, with no other superpower to fight, many American tales of modern espionage looks for villainy within the cracks of its own government. While Skyfall functioned well making its threat based on an individual’s agenda rather than a government-backed scheme for conquest or subversion, The Bourne Legacy feels like even more of a vestige of Cold War conspiracy theorizing than any Bond film of recent memory.

Courtesy Universal Studios
Thank God someone decided to use more traditional cameras. A Bourne movie that doesn’t induce nausea!

Fortunately, the strength of The Bourne Legacy comes more from individual performers than any major plot concerns. It seems that one of the driving forces of the film is to ensure that Jeremy Renner can carry something action-heavy on his own. The Hurt Locker was more drama than action, and as much as the man has turned up in other works in roles both villainous and heroic, a Hawkeye movie doesn’t seem to be in the cards until Marvel Studios greenlights the story of what happened between him and the Black Widow in Budapest. For the most part, he does seem to have the chops for this sort of role, from the physicality for stunts and fights to the pathos necessary to make the audience care about him. Rachel Weisz is in the sort of role that seems well-suited for her: she’s smart and observant, doing her best to actually support our hero rather than be a burden to get dragged along. It worked well for her in The Mummy and it works here, too. Ed Norton feels underutilized in his bad guy role, however, as he behaves with the same moderate amount of intensity that you get from any of the villainous masterminds in a Bourne film.

The biggest problem that the movie suffers from is that a great deal of time is taken to set everything up and tie the story into the existing Bourne mythos. It feels like an extended origin story for Aaron Cross, a sort of springboard into his own line of tales, but just when we’re getting a handle on who this guy is and why he’s interesting, the story comes to an abrupt end. There’s also the fact that not long before that end, an aspect of his character that felt really interesting and added some pathos and depth to him gets resolved within just a few minutes of its reveal. After over an hour of build-up, to have everything stop so suddenly left me feeling disappointed. While it’s a good idea to leave your audience wanting more, you also want to provide some sense of resolution. I guess the idea is to watch The Bourne Supremacy again to see how things line up, and wait for Matt Damon to do a team-up with Jeremy Renner to put the entire thing to bed. We can hope, at least.

Courtesy Universal Studios
“Here we see the nascent super-solider in his natural habitat…”

Stuff I Liked: I always like seeing Ed Norton. This film ditches the shakey-cam of previous Bourne films and I never felt confused trying to follow the action.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: For all of its talk of conspiracies and chemical compounds, the film feels insubstantial. While the idea of tying into the existing franchise while being its own animal is neat, the execution feels like it wanted to go completely one way or the other and couldn’t make up its mind. Much of the plot feels muddy and outside of immediate threat to the likable protagonists there’s no major tension to speak of.
Stuff I Loved: I like both Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, and they have good chemistry (no pun intended), so that made the majority of the film quite watchable. The drone attack was pretty neat, especially the ways in which Cross deals with them.

Bottom Line: The Bourne Legacy isn’t bad, but it isn’t all that great or memorable, either. It’s competently built with good people in both the leading roles and behind the scenes, it’s part of an extant successful franchise, and there’s just enough interesting character stuff to keep it going for its running time. I questioned some of the decisions made in telling the story, and bits felt insubstantial, but I never fell completely into boredom while watching it. If you like either of the leads, or just have to know what happens next in Bourne’s world, you’ll have a decent time with this one.

Movie Review: Skyfall

James Bond, now 50 years old as a franchise, has struggled to find his place in the modern cinematic scene. Both in his own universe and next to towering transforming robots and lush worlds of dragons and hobbits, the question is raised: is there still room for an aging but still spry warhorse like Bond? In a way, Skyfall represented a last chance for Bond. After the excellent Casino Royale was greeted with less than overwhelming praise, and Quantum of Solace earned a great deal of well-deserved stick, would this be Bond’s last hurrah, or the turning point of the series back towards success?

Courtesy MGM

As Skyfall opens, we catch up with 007 and a fellow agent named Eve in Istanbul as they pursue the murderous thief of a valuable hard drive. Chase scenes aren’t innovative in the world of the espionage action-adventure, but this one transitions smoothly from cars to motorbikes to a train, and heavy industrial equipment also gets involved. In addition to its shifting scale, the sequence is also wonderfully and cleanly shot, with clear establishing images and well-positioned fights. Then Eve tries to shoot down the thief while he and Bond struggle on top of the train and… well, let’s just say things go pear-shaped.

If the theme of Skyfall somehow eludes you after the opening sequence, M will nail it down for you. In the wake of the Istanbul incident, M is called before the civilian government and her headquarters is bombed. When Bond returns, he is put through some tests to ensure his skills are still up to scratch, and then is sent out after whomever is targeting M and find out for what purpose. By focusing on the relationship between 007 and his employer, and making them personal targets of the villain, Skyfall maintains a tight story focus that was lacking in Quantum of Solace while keeping the character-driven narrative that made Casino Royale such a success.

Courtesy MGM
“Is… is that Jean Yves you’re wearing?”

Speaking of villains, Javier Bardem brings us the character of Silva. While he has no plans for world domination, he does have most other affectations of a classic Bond villain: a remote and menacing lair, a distinctive physical presence, and a tendency to do a lot of talking. Added to this are his past history with MI6 and the Byzantine nature of his plans, to the point that he becomes almost Joker-like in his anticipation of his enemy’s moves. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a turn of events towards the middle of the film that feel distinctly like they were cribbing notes from The Dark Knight. I can’t slight them for their choice in material, and it’s certainly not a direct copy-paste, but it’s not something you can just un-notice.

However, Bardem’s performance, like those of the rest of the cast, is full of nuance and personality. Daniel Craig’s Bond goes through the process of finally honing down that surly, unrefined edge of his, and seeing him suave it up in a Macau casino feels like coming home; this is the Bond we’ve been waiting for. Dame Judi Dench is incredible as always, making M even more personal and bringing her closer to Bond than she’s ever been. The newcomers are all top-notch as well, with Ralph Finnes supporting the democratic and bureaucratic process while his loyalty to MI6 and our heroes remains in doubt, Naomi Harris bringing levity, complexity, and sensuality to the character of Eve, French actress Bérénice Marlohe smolders in classic Bond girl fashion as Sévérine, and relative newcomer Ben Whishaw rounds out the cast as the new Q, a bespectacled technology expert that is wonderfully juxtaposed with our classic two-fisted hero. Despite winks to the audience here and there, nothing feels phoned in or strictly by the numbers. The cast has a natural ease with the material that makes them both easy and delightful to watch.

Courtesy MGM
I love that kitschy bulldog on M’s desk.

Also helping Skyfall‘s case is excellent direction and stunning cinematography. Sam Mendes is perhaps best known for slower-paced, contemplative pieces such as American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Jarhead, but he clearly knows how to convey action as much as he does emotion. The sight of Bond jumping from the catwalk of a backhoe onto a train car is just as compelling as the look on Bond’s face at the firing range at MI6. He balances the emotionality of the moment with its movement and energy perfectly. He’s paired with Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers of our time – his credits include The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, Doubt, and most Coen Brothers movies including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, and True Grit. He makes every shot of Skyfall gorgeous, including some shots that could easily be framed and hung on a wall. Good writing with well-acted characters is usually enough to sell a movie, but Skyfall could also succeed on visuals alone. Put together, and we have one of the best Bond films to come along in decades.

Firing as it does on so many cylinders, flaws in Skyfall are hard to find. It does run a bit long, but given its focus on characters and narrative, this is somewhat understandable, and very little of the running time is spent idly. Some references and in-jokes may fly over the heads of some audience members, especially at the film’s conclusion. This, however, is also purposeful: the message is clearly that Bond has come full circle.

Stuff I Liked: Silva’s entrance. The inclusion of exotic animals of death. The practicality of Bond’s equipment. The sequence in the Shanghai skyrise. The fact that MI6’s bunker is, at least in part, connected to Churchill’s.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: We never find out what, exactly, Sévérine does for Silva. And while it’s not a gripe, I’m a bit confused by the timeline of things; considering this is a new Bond, I’m not sure he has a direct connection to the exploding pen mentioned by Q or the old Astin Martin. I’m not complaining about these things being in the film, mind you; I’m just not sure this Bond is the same Bond who used these gadgets. A minor point.
Stuff I Loved: The opening sequence. M’s characterization. The way Ralph Finnes’ character is clearly trying to do the right thing even if it’s pissing off M or Bond. The exchanges between Bond and Silva. The quips. The martini. Pretty much the entire third act of the movie. “Welcome to Scotland.”

Bottom Line: The best way to sum up Skyfall is with three words: Bond is back. In addition to being a great action movie with good characters in interesting relationships, it’s a Bond movie through and through. Here’s hoping we get more like this, and that the days of ultra-camp embarrassments like Octopussy and confused messes like Quantum of Solace are finally behind us.

Book Review: Headhunters

It’s easy to assume that threats to national security and integrity only come from foreign shores. Dressing terrorists, the boogeymen of our time, in the clothes and skin color of minorities softens the reality. There will always be dissidents, malcontents, and flat-out crazy people within our own borders, working inside our own systems, either to dismantle something they see as wrong or just to get themselves ahead somehow. Fighting these threats can be a dirty, underhanded, downright soulless affair. But if the country’s integrity is to remain intact along with its security, some men must make sure certain lines are never crossed. Simon Parks is one of those men, and he is our subject as the protagonist of Charlie Cole’s Headhunters.

Courtesy Charlie Cole

Simon works for Blackthorn, a deep-cover internal anti-terrorist group working in the United States to combat domestic terrorism. While most of his duties are concerned with finding new talent for this work, his job keeps him at the office for very long hours, even days at a time, and his wife decides to leave him over it. In an attempt to get her back, Simon inadvertently causes a fatal car crash, leaving him a widower and his children without a mother. Heartbroken, he resigns from Blackthorn and tries to start life over in a new city, as a headhunter for a different firm. But his old boss isn’t about to let a resource like Simon go without a fight, not while there’s still work to do, and Simon’s new boss is not all he seems, either. Intrigue comes at Simon from all sides, with what’s left of his family caught in the crossfire.

Novels like this work or fall apart based primarily on the construction of the protagonist. A driven, stoic, nearly super-human badass (or a team of them) can carry an empty summer action flick, but not so much a modern thriller. Thankfully, Cole gives Simon a great deal of humanity and humility. He questions his actions even as they’re being undertaken, apologizes several times to friends when they become involved in his life and its trials, and continually reminds the reader that he’s “just a guy.” While it’s a realistic reaction to the sort of shenanigans that occur to Simon, he doesn’t have the difficulties Jack Ryan did in early Tom Clancy novels. He’s perfectly competent as an unarmed combatant, marksman, and strategist, even as doubts gnaw away at him.

It’s pretty clear that this is a debut novel, with some of the plot developments easy to predict and some of Simon’s abilities and resources seeming too good to be true. However, Cole has a background in the areas within which the story takes place, and while I’m certain artistic license has been taken throughout the novel, none of the flaws make the novel difficult to read or hard to believe. Simon has enough bravery to carry the action, enough humanity to invoke sympathy, and enough humility to avoid becoming insufferable. The story moves at a good pace, action scenes pop with a good dose of realism, there’s plenty of twists in the tale, and Charlie even threw in a bit of romance, presented tastefully and at the right times to allow us breathers between the tension.

Fans of tales such as 24 and The Bourne Identity will be right at home here. Charlie Cole is looking to be a decent successor to Clancy and Ludlum, and Headhunters is a fun and engrossing read. He has plenty of room to grow, which is actually exciting. As good as Headhunters is, his next yarn should be even better.

Movie Review: Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

I was introduced to Mission: Impossible at a young age. I found the TV series to be fascinating, in the way it used the same aesthetic and atmosphere of James Bond but felt far closer to home. It had cool gadgets, good chases, and decent characters. The movies have never quite measured up to the source material, and while I admire the audacity of the first film to wreck absolute havoc on the lives of the characters, they’ve felt a bit safe and generic since then. Ghost Protocol seemed to promise a return to former Mission: Impossible standards while looking fresh and crisp.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Ethan Hunt is in a Russian prison, and two members of the Impossible Mission Force break him out. He’s needed for a delicate operation in the very heart of the country’s government. It turns out, however, that his team’s been set up by a brilliant but insane physicist to take the fall for a bombing at the Kremlin. Faced with a ton of international fallout and the resurrected fear of war, the United States quickly shuts down the IMF, and the President initiates Ghost Protocol. Hunt and his team, along with a newcomer who claims to be a mere analyst, must track down the physicist and prevent the release of nuclear launch codes, lest the world become an atomic wasteland.

So while it’s not Russia being the bad guys, there’s still a lot of this film that feels like Cold War stuff. In that way, it’s similar to the Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt. Both are technically well-executed thrillers, but Mission Impossible goes for more of a straightforward, high action route rather than opting for grit or darkness. Besides, this is a plot we’ve all seen play out before, so the film has to do something new to keep our attention for its 133 minute run time.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Yeah, that’s one way to keep our attention.

What it opts to do, and what I like about it, is that its focus is more on the characters and how they deal with their circumstances, rather than the tech or the chases overwhelm us. I wouldn’t say it’s an entirely character-driven piece, as more often than not circumstances from the plot are what move us along. However, the moments we do get between the characters aren’t badly written. Banter is believable and the characters tend to react to things in realistic ways. I also like the fact that while romance is hinted at in one instance, it’s neither forced nor taken as a foregone conclusion. The filmmakers do a good job of making the team feel like people, rather than cyphers, even if Simon Pegg and Paula Patton get the short end of the stick in terms of character development.

Unfortunately, our main foursome have to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting us to care about the story. The antagonist is so generically Bond-villain bad it’s difficult to key into the threat he represents outside of a general dislike of the prospect of nuclear war. As much as the plot is rooted in the current geo-political theater, the Cold War is over and the spectre of atomic annihilation is not the bogeyman it once was. There’s also the fact that Michael Nyqvist is completely wasted in the role. He was very good in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the original one) and while he does what he can with this mouth-foaming megalomaniacal drivel, it’s just a bit hard to swallow, especially when his hitherto-unknown martial arts skills appear for the climax.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Beautiful people.

There’s also the fact that the plot relies almost entirely on coincidence and contrivance to stay in motion. While the tech never outshines the characters, its functionality, or more often lack thereof, is the cause of the characters needing to act rather than the characters being the vector for change themselves. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there. The technology robs the characters of their agency and the story suffers for it. It’s a shame, too, because here and there we see good character beats that would make a good movie in and of themselves, instead of just being the saving grace of a well-shot above-average espionage thriller.

Stuff I Liked: The IMF team has good chemistry. Action is well-shot and does not rely on camera tricks to highten tension. It’s nice to see locales that don’t often get used for films like this, such as Dubai and India.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I felt bad for Michael Nyqvist as he’s given little to do other than be a dime-store Blofeld until the final scene where he suddenly becomes an excellent fighter. Technology failing once at an inopportune time is kind of funny, but it happens so often that it becomes almost predictable. Plot contrivance is the fuel that drives the film instead of character development.
Stuff I Loved: The banter between Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. The prevalence of the Mission: Impossible theme in the score made me happy. The opening operation of sneaking into the Kremlin was very well done. Little moments like Renner’s character hesitating to jump, Pegg’s overall enthusiasm, and the old phone booth failing to self-destruct after giving Tom Cruise his mission.

Bottom Line: Brad Bird’s debut in live-action filmmaking is by no means bad. It’s fun to watch and not without good moments, especially in the character department, but it’s not terribly memorable. While it’s much better than the previous two Mission: Impossible films, a little more time playing down the plot contrivances while increasing the moments of character construction would have made it even more compelling to watch. As it is, you could do worse for espionage action films to watch, but you could also do better.

Flash Fiction: The Exchange

Courtesy Fanpop

Chose four words from the eight random ones offered by Terribleminds.

The day had been chosen as much for the weather as anything else. Bright and sunny, on a weekend, it was the perfect time for parents to bring their kids to the zoo. It wasn’t too crowded, as many families were on vacations, but there were still enough visitors that the two men on the bench in the big cats section didn’t stick out too much.

Joe had the briefcase between his feet as he sat, watching the crowd. Kids walked by frequently, pointing at animals or sipping milkshakes or fighting with siblings. It made him miss his own child, living with his mother as part of the aftermath of the divorce, but he pulled his mind back to what was about to happen. Beside him, Frank leaned back against the bench.

“Think this will satisfy the man in the wheelchair?”

“Could be.” Joe didn’t like to speculate. “Could also be that it’s not worth the trouble.”

“He shouldn’t have hired us to acquire it in the first place, then.”

That, in and of itself, had taken some doing. Several cars, a sat-nav system, a couple unfortunate civilians, and a great deal of gunfire had gone into stealing the case. It was after losing Donalee that Joe had doubled the asking price. Donalee had been a good asset. Working with her and Frank reminded Joe of better days, more legitimate days, but those were over now. He grimaced as he thought of the girl bleeding out by the road. The worst part was, what else was he suited for? Flipping burgers? Answering phones? Making nice at company parties? No. This was his life, making shady deals with shadier men in places like this.

Two men approached through the crowd, carrying a briefcase of their own. As agreed, one of them was holding a map of the city with a zoo circled in yellow highlighter, and an arrow drawn on in red. Joe and Frank stood. The other men stopped a couple feet away, and the two pairs faced each other. The sky darkened as the sun dipped behind cloud cover. Neither of the newcomers spoke.

“Here’s how this works.” Joe held up his case. “I’m going to count to three. On three, we step to each other, I hand you this case-” He gestured to the man across from him. “-and Frank gets handed the money. Then we all walk away happy. Questions?”

There were none. Joe took a deep breath and counted. The four men moved like clockwork, and if the sun hadn’t peeked out from behind its cloud, Joe would never have seen it.

A glint of metal in the other man’s hand.

Joe stopped immediately but Frank hadn’t seen it. He was reaching out for the money. The man across from him swung his arm up into Frank’s torso from the side, under the arm, and Frank gasped. He didn’t cry out, though. Funny thing about the human lung: stab it in one place, you can still scream. Stab it in another, you can’t make a sound.

Joe brought the case up, hard, punching the other man in the stomach with it. He backpedaled quickly. A flowerpot shattered under his foot and he lost his balance. Momentum kept him going backwards, over the railing, and down the seven foot drop into the enclosure below. Years of practice before and after recruitment had him twisting and moving his body as he fell, his knees bending at just the right time to absorb the impact. He looked up, case still in hand, fingers ready to go for his sidearm.

The men at the railing weren’t looking at him.

He turned, then, and saw the tiger approaching.

He’d landed on the far side of the small, artificial river that allowed the cats to bathe at their leisure but also kept them from getting a good start on the wall. The jungle cat was moving slowly, carefully, not taking her eyes from the intruder. Joe didn’t look up again. He heard people making noise, probably pointing at him, but he knew if he so much as glanced away, he was done for. These cats were not docile or domesticated. They were wild animals kept locked away from the open spaces they loved.

Joe made no sudden movements, kept his gun in its holster under his jacket, the case at his side. He moved as slowly, as quietly, as the tiger approaching him. Every step the tiger took, he took. It was like a very quiet, very deadly dance. The keepers had to have little doors or other ways to enter the enclosure, and Joe intended to find one. The tigress growled softly, a sound less threatening and more curious, as she kept pace with him. Joe couldn’t help but smile. Most prey probably tried to flee by this point.

“Hey, mister! Over here!”

Joe didn’t look. The sound came from his right, and he moved towards it at the same agonizing pace. The tiger, for her part, paused at the sight of the zookeeper, even more uncertain of what was going on. Joe inclined his head to the tiger in a respectful way, and felt hands on his right arm. He took the hint and stepped that way, into a small concrete hallway as the concealed door closed behind him.

Before the poor zookeeper could say a word, Joe smacked him with the case across the jaw. He was out cold before he knew what happened.

Minutes later, he emerged wearing a zookeeper’s uniform under his jacket, case in hand. Losing Frank bothered him more than he liked to admit. He’d been alone in the cold before, after he’d been burned, but this was different. This felt far more personal. Paying the money was cleaner, but this double-cross meant the man in the wheelchair wanted the case even more badly than Joe had realized.

He found a public phone, and made a call.

“Hello, Natalya. Joe here. Are you free for lunch?”

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