#335. Action Spy!

The irony of the spy genre in Hollywood is that any spy who is really good at espionage is unlikely to be caught. If a spy is not detected, then there is no chance they’d have to escape via a high-octane action sequence. This would be a dull movie. Anymore, most spies are experts in the cyber domain, which makes any chances of action even less likely. Still, for those “feet on the ground” agents out in the field, knowing how to handle one’s self is a fundamental element to their survival should they be compromised. While most spy movies involve some elements of action, some have more action than others. Entire film franchises are based on spies saving the world by fighting their way out of the enemy’s clutches. So, while the action spy is a fabrication of Hollywood, it’s safe to say they’re here to stay. This week’s two films highlight some notable examples of the action spy.

The Bourne IdentityThe Bourne Identity
Year: 2002
Rating: PG-13
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

Most spies usually have an agency backing them. Whether it’s MI6 in the James Bond franchise, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) in the Mission: Impossible franchise, or the eponymous U.N.C.L.E. in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), every spy has an agency giving out orders and providing logistical support to keep them armed and dangerous. But what if a spy’s agency turns on them? What if they have to not only survive with a compromised identity but survive against the agency that trained them? These spies need to think fast and move even faster. When a spy is the best of the best, it’s entertaining to watch them escape from even the most hopeless situation via their ability to fight, run, and survive by any means necessary. The epitome of this type of spy is none other than Jason Bourne.

After a botched mission, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is shocked to learn that Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has survived and now has no memories of who he is. Unfortunately, his training is so deeply ingrained in his mind that he is able to call upon his spy skills to avoid capture. From hand-to-hand combat to professional driving, Bourne uses his talents to escape to the French countryside where he eliminates The Professor (Clive Owen), a sniper sent from the same CIA black ops program Bourne was from to eliminate him. With this new knowledge of Project Treadstone, Bourne heads to the safe house in Paris to confront his handler, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper). Upon reaching a modicum of closure, Bourne vanishes into the night, attempting to live a peaceful life as he continues to search for his missing memories.

SaltSalt
Year: 2010
Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

Any spy worth their salt (haha) will be able to maintain their cover, even in the most stressing of situations. As we’ve seen in films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), this cover can go so deep as to keep an individual’s spouse in the dark as to the true nature of their employment. Of course, as we also saw in that movie, once covers are compromised, action ensues in the most extreme fashion possible. Even if a spy’s spouse or significant other isn’t a spy, like in RED (2010), then there’s likely to be a greater chance said spy would need to protect themselves and their loved ones should anything go wrong. Obviously, when things go wrong with a spy, they can go wrong in a big way. There’s a reason these action spies are usually off globetrotting since the fate of the world is often in their capable hands.

Shortly after being rescued from North Korea, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) admits to her boyfriend that she is actually a CIA agent. Regardless of this, the two of them get married shortly afterward and live happily until two years later when a Russian agent arrives at the CIA and is interrogated by Salt. He tells her about a group of Russian sleeper agents and that she is one of them. Since his testimony is proven correct by a lie detector, Salt needs to immediately escape the CIA compound and head into hiding. Upon learning her husband is kidnapped, she decides to carry out the mission of her sleeper-agent self, killing the Russian President in the process. With her loyalty to the Russians now confirmed, she is given her next assignment: kill the U.S. President. When one of her CIA colleagues reveals himself to be another of the sleeper agents, Salt reveals her actions are a ruse and that she is still loyal to the U.S.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 exciting espionage agents

#198. Jeremy Renner

Have you ever noticed that some actors just appear out of nowhere? One year, they’re doing minor roles, then the next they’re on the red carpet, nominated for an acting Oscar. Depending on how long they’ve been acting before they break onto the A-list scene, their career will often flourish and grow from this point forward. The visual recognition of someone really helps to bolster their involvement in bigger-budget films, thus propelling them further into stardom. The trick then remains of maintaining that visibility in cinema. Some can do it well and eventually win the awards they were nominated for when they arrived on the scene. Others burn out and aren’t seen much after a few years. Jeremy Renner is definitely the former of these two scenarios, and this week we will highlight two of his leading roles.

The Bourne LegacyThe Bourne Legacy
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

One way to maintain your popularity with audiences is to become involved with a franchise. This way, you will always have a role to fall back on if your other projects don’t pan out. After Jeremy Renner hit the scene in the late 2000s, he was picked up on two long-running and popular franchises. These two franchises put him alongside some famous actors, which means he’s still in a supporting role for now. In the Mission Impossible franchise, Renner portrays William Brandt, the chief analyst to the IMF Secretary, whereas, in The Avengers (2012), he portrays Clint Barton (codename: Hawkeye), an archer agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. These two roles fit in nicely with his involvement in another action franchise: the Bourne series. Instead of a support role, he takes on the main spotlight in the fourth film for this franchise that relied on Matt Damon for three movies.

In the world of covert government operations, the Department of Defense has its own “super soldier” program in “Operation Outcome.” This is a different program from the Treadstone and Blackbriar initiatives run by the CIA, the very same of which created the titular Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). One of Operation Outcome’s best agents is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who is in Alaska for a training exercise. Even though the DoD program uses chemical enhancements of its soldiers, the fact that the CIA programs are now under increased scrutiny causes them to shut down Outcome. After surviving a drone attack on the Alaskan cabin where he was staying, Cross soon finds out that the “chems” he uses for his job are the only thing keeping him alive. He’s addicted and must now carefully find his way back to society to get more of his pills, all the while evading government detection.

The Hurt LockerThe Hurt Locker
Year: 2008
Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes / 2.18 hours

Before The Hurt Locker (2008), Jeremy Renner was in a lot of films that didn’t do very well, critically speaking. Most see his involvement with this Best Picture as his arrival as a movie star. The nomination he received for Best Actor in this film was also evidence to this as well. It wasn’t long before he was nominated again, this time for Best Supporting Actor in The Town (2010). Even though he wasn’t nominated for anything in American Hustle (2013), the fact that he is regularly cast in films that are seen as award-worthy shows he has figured out how to prolong his career. The strategy is twofold: act in “fun” films to get audiences to like you, while also making sure to act in “serious” films to get the critics to like you. I look forward to seeing if this strategy will pay off for him as he continues his career.

A fitting match to the aforementioned The Bourne Legacy (2012), the opening quote of The Hurt Locker is quite apt, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” William James (Jeremy Renner) is a Sergeant First Class who is assigned to Iraq to lead an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit for the U.S. Army. After a series of close calls and diffused bombs, it becomes clear James does what he wants, regardless of the consequences to him or his team. Unfortunately for his team, he gets results. The thrill of adventure soon disappears as he is sent home to his wife, Connie James (Evangeline Lilly). Raising their infant son together doesn’t provide nearly enough excitement, so William decides to go back to Iraq to do what he loves: diffusing the bombs that threaten the safety of everyone.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 remarkable Renner roles

Bacon #: 2 (American Hustle / Robert DeNiro -> Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

#197. Trilogy+

We all know Hollywood loves sequels. What I like more are trilogies. Of course, what I mean by that is I like trilogies that are planned to be trilogies from the beginning (instead of two movies added on to a successful one). A trilogy is merely a larger scale version of an individual film. The first film provides the introductions; the second gives a good conflict; while the third wraps everything up. Or at least that’s how it should work. One sure sign that a franchise is being exploited for more money is for a studio to make a trilogy, only to follow it with another, separate movie. This additional film rarely has any of the same characters from the trilogy and often isn’t connected to the first three films at all, other than in name only. I refer to these films as “Trilogy Plus,” and this week we will examine the effects of two such films.

                              Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesPirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 136 minutes / 2.26 hours

About 2.5 years ago, I wrote a post on this blog where I discussed a cinematic phenomenon I have dubbed “The Trilogy Conundrum.” This phenomenon is often seen when one film is so good, it begets a sequel, but the first sequel is left with a cliffhanger that begets another sequel to wrap up the story. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a prime example of this. Usually, these two sequels are released relatively close together (much like two-part films are nowadays), only having a year between them. With the trilogy complete, the story would be over, right? Unfortunately, this was not the case. Three years after At World’s End (2007), a new film was released with only three characters and the production company carrying over from the trilogy. As such, the feel of the “Trilogy Plus” was very different.

With the events of the Davy Jones saga far behind him, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is now in search of the legendary and mythical “Fountain of Youth.” Of course, he is not the only one after the hidden source of immortality. Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) retired from his career as a pirate from the first three films and is now serving King George II in his search for the Fountain. Meanwhile, Blackbeard (Ian McShane) is the closest to finding the watery elixir, having captured a mermaid necessary for the immortality spell to work. When his daughter, Angelica (Penélope Cruz) brings Jack and Barbossa to her father, the three men manage to team up and actually find the Fountain. Now the question remains, who will be smart enough to activate the immortality spell before anyone else can?

The Bourne LegacyThe Bourne Legacy
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

The Bourne franchise is an interesting case for a few reasons. First, only the first three films share the names of the novels written by Robert Ludlum. This reason is because Ludlum died after writing the trilogy, and another author picked up the character a decade later to continue the series. Secondly, these films didn’t even follow the plot of the source material, other than having an amnesiac secret agent. This reason is because the novels were written during the Cold War, and were completed before the fall of the Berlin Wall, thus giving the whole novel trilogy a heavily Soviet-inspired setting. As such, the fourth film in the Bourne franchise would have been considered canon, if it had taken anything from the Eric Van Lustbader novel which shares its name. Unfortunately, the film again only took the name for its “Trilogy Plus.”

What is perhaps most unfortunate in this film is that the eponymous Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) doesn’t even appear in it. Instead, the focus is on Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a chemically-enhanced operative who finds himself the target of his superiors when the entire Operation Outcome program is shut down following the mayhem Jason Bourne is causing the U.S. government. Because the people in charge don’t want to be caught with any evidence left, they send a drone to Alaska to eliminate Cross, one of the remaining pieces of the super-soldier program. He is fortunate enough to escape the attack and trick the drone into thinking he died in the Alaskan cabin, but now he is a long way away from his needed medication. Now Cross is left with only one course of action: avoid detection long enough to satiate his government-mandated addiction.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 trilogy tack-ons