#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 caught, then there is no chance that they’d have to escape via a high-octane action sequence. This would be a boring 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 to them, 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 MI-5 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 (ha ha) 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 that 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

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#334. Amnesia

What were we talking about? Oh yes, amnesia. While this trope is usually associated with soap operas, it has been used in a variety of diverse formats and for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes the effect can be used for humorous purposes, much like the plot of 50 First Dates (2004). More often than not, amnesia is used to make the protagonist more relatable to the audience. Everything the main character re-learns is new information to the audience. In fact, this trope is typically used to not only provide lengthy exposition but to also give the plot a good twist at the end. If anything, amnesia can make characters more dynamic: acting one way as they regain their memories, then having to make the decision to either revert to their former life or pick up their new one once they learn the truth. This week’s two films highlight amnesia as a plot device.

UnkownUnknown
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 85 minutes /  1.42 hours

The largest appeal of amnesia as a plot device is the erasure of any memories the main character would have that would bias their decision-making process. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). The little hints the main character gives himself to avenge his wife’s death only act to propel him into an unintentional bias that drives him to vengeance. While Memento covers a medical condition, temporary amnesia has its uses as a plot device as well. When key memories fall into place for temporary amnesiacs, the plot is driven forward by the exciting revelations. Films like Total Recall (1990) and Unknown (2011) hide assassins in plain sight. However, when the entire cast of characters contracts temporary amnesia, figuring out who’s who and each individual’s alliances makes for exceptional drama.

Not to be confused with the Liam Neeson film of the same name, Unknown (2006) starts with a group of men regaining consciousness and trying to figure out why they’re locked in an abandoned warehouse. They also need to deduce why one of them was tied up, another shot, and why the rest of them have other, various injuries. Slowly, they begin to piece together that they are part of a failed kidnapping due to an accidental chemical leak that put them in a temporary coma and erased their memories. As their memories return, each individual realizes they’re either a kidnapper or the kidnapped. When the mafia returns to unlock the warehouse, they proceed to eliminate the witnesses, not knowing that one of the individuals has just remembered his actual job: acting as an undercover cop to infiltrate the mob.

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

Memories are the moments that define our lives. We are who we are via the collected memories of our lives. These memories shape us and inform our decisions in life. If memories are erased, an individual can be molded into almost anyone. If a government has the ability to erase memories, they can create docile and obedient soldiers, much like was seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Of course, memories are much easier to erase when they’re part of a cybernetic interface. Films like Robocop (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) show this digital memory erasure still comes with some problems, though. But what if a well-trained super soldier loses their memories? Would they continue to call upon their ingrained training, being able to perform all their duties without knowing how they got that way? Would they continue to kill without knowing why?

After an unidentified man is found floating in the Mediterranean by some local fishermen, he only has one clue to his identity: a safe deposit box in Switzerland. While he doesn’t know who he is, he does retain a plethora of useful skills. Opening the box in Zurich, the man learns he has multiple cover identities and opts to use the one of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Unfortunately, his presence is soon identified, and he has to run away, mostly unsure why he is being chased. As he comes in contact with more people from his past, he learns that he was a highly-trained assassin and part of Operation Treadstone. Because he carries no memories of his time as a CIA black ops operative, he decides he’s better off cutting ties with Treadstone. Unfortunately, Treadstone does not want to lose an asset as valuable as Jason Bourne and will fight him to bring him back into the program.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome amnesias

#301. Matt Damon

If you had one Trillion dollars lying around, would you use it to save Matt Damon? A few years ago, someone threw some numbers together to estimate the amount of money spent on rescuing all of Matt Damon’s characters and the total was close to a Trillion dollars. Granted, Matt Damon certainly has some skill when it comes to being an actor, but why his characters always need saving is quite the question. Part of why this number is so large is due to the variety of Damon’s roles. From sci-fi epics like Elysium (2013), Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) to modern-era films like Syriana (2005) and Green Zone (2010), Matt Damon has shown time and again that he knows how to act like he needs help. With so many excellent roles to choose from, this week’s two films highlight some award-winning films featuring Matt Damon.

The DepartedThe Departed
Year: 2006
Rating: R
Length: 151 minutes / 2.52 hours

What helps set Matt Damon apart from other actors is the fact that he can remain as an individual in a cast filled with high-profile actors. From his role as Linus Caldwell in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) to his role as James Granger in The Monuments Men (2014), few films with a star-studded cast including Matt Damon have been nominated for Best Picture. Unless you also want to include Good Will Hunting (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and True Grit (2010) in this list, in which case it’s happened three times. However, the only film to include Matt Damon alongside a cast full of A-list actors that also won the Oscar for Best Picture is that of The Departed (2006). Of course, partly because of the large cast of excellent talent, Damon was not nominated for an acting award for his part in this film.

Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has come a long way since his childhood in South Boston. As he proved his reliability in the Massachusetts State Police, eventually he was placed on a task force to rid the city of organized crime. What his supervisors do not know is that this position is a conflict of interest for him, since the mobster they are trying to catch, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), is the man who helped raise him. Soon Colin is trying to use his connections to find a mole in the mob while also trying to not be found out as the mole in the police. Both moles eventually learn each other’s identities, but when it comes down to loyalties, each one has to determine for themselves which side of this fight they want to be on. Unfortunately, with secret identities now revealed, the conflict explodes in a hail of bullets, leaving few alive.

Good Will HuntingGood Will Hunting
Year: 1997
Rating: R
Length: 126 minutes / 2.1 hours

While The Departed did not garner Damon an acting Oscar, he has been nominated a number of times. This comes as no surprise as Matt Damon holds the eponymous role for such films as the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan, , as well asThe Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Jason Bourne (2016). His most recent nomination comes in the form of another eponymous role: The Martian. Before this, he was nominated for Invictus (2009), but merely in a supporting role. The real trick is, even though he didn’t win an Oscar for his acting in Good Will Hunting, he did earn one for this film. Along with Ben Affleck, the two of them wrote the screenplay for this coming-of-age film, immediately launching both of their careers for decades to come.

The titular Will Hunting (Matt Damon) works as a janitor at MIT where he comes across a mathematics problem posted for graduate students. His solution to the problem piques the interest of the professor who posted it. Realizing the genius who solved the problem isn’t one of his students, Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) gets Will out of some jail time by promising to mentor him. While this allows Will to avoid punishment, it also comes with a catch: Will must receive therapy. With Lambeau’s attempts to coach Will through his problems being unfruitful, Lambeau decides to hand him off to Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Despite initial coldness, Will eventually opens up to Maguire, learning that they share some of the same struggles. At the same time, Will’s blue-collar friends gradually convince him that he’s meant for greater things and to take the opportunities he’s given.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent Matt Damon roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Rainmaker / Mickey Rourke -> Diner / Kevin Bacon)

#157. Car Chases

How is it that one of the most mundane tasks of our lives can also be one of the most exciting? The task to which I am referring to is that of driving. So often, we fill our lives with driving from home to work, and back home again, only to occasionally visit a third location, like the grocery store or gas station. These unexciting events are usually exacerbated by bad traffic conditions, like a highway traffic jam, or continued bad timing of traffic lights. In this way, our innate desire to go fast in cars is heightened to the point where a high-speed car chase can be an exciting turn of events. Of course, even if you aren’t being chased, if you’re driving really fast in your car, law enforcement officials will quickly turn it into a car chase. This week’s two films examine some excellent cinematic car chases, both with foreign contexts.

The French ConnectionThe French Connection
Year: 1971
Rating: R
Length: 104 minutes / 1.73 hours

Even if cars (and CGI) have become more technologically advanced, car chase scenes were still impressive feats of choreography and stuntmanship for almost as long as movies have been made. However, if one were to pinpoint the film that started the cinematic car chase, it would have to be Bullitt (1968) and Steve McQueen’s race through San Francisco. And even if It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) had a car chase five years earlier, it was for comedic effect, much like The Blues Brothers (1980) perfected years later with a veritable legion of police cars being totaled in the process. Similarly, The French Connection took what Bullitt had done and improved upon it. After all, it’s easy for one car to chase another, but a completely different story when the car chase involves an elevated train.

Much like Bullitt highlighted the aspects of San Francisco that made it a unique city for a car chase, The French Connection did the same thing for New York City. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) is behind the wheel after an assassin fails in an attempt on Popeye’s life. The NYPD Detective had been exposed during his investigation of a potential shipment of heroin from France, which caused the hit on him to be given out in the first place. Immediately after being shot at, Popeye starts to chase after his attempted assassin, which involves a high-speed drive through New York’s streets, most of it underneath an elevated train. Since the assassin figured he could get away fastest by train, he didn’t realize that Popeye was committed to bringing the assassin to justice. Furthermore, once the assassin was shot, and the heroin shipment intercepted, will the NYPD be able to close the case?

The Italian JobThe Italian Job
Year: 2003
Rating: PG-13
Length: 111 minutes / 1.85 hours

As was hinted at earlier, improvements in cars and CGI have made car chases much more spectacular in modern years. Aside from the Fast and the Furious franchise, which is essentially a vehicle for such chases, many other films have upped the intensity of the car chase from the films of the mid-to-late 20th century. Movies like The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Dark Knight (2008) all have intense action sequences involving car chases (and are all, strangely enough, the middle part of a trilogy). Still, some heist/crime drama films focus more on driving as part of its plot, including Drive (2011) and The Italian Job (2003). After all, when crimes are committed, a getaway vehicle is needed, and a skilled driver must be used to escape in a high-speed action sequence with lots of literal twists and turns.

A remake of the 1969 film of the same name, The Italian Job manages to not only have a car chase (with helicopters, by the way), but a boat chase as well. The movie begins with a heist of some gold from an apartment in Venice, Italy. As the safe containing the bullion falls through the floor, a boat drives away, causing the mobsters who initially stole the gold to take chase as the real safe is broken into under water. Unfortunately, the gold is stolen again when a double-cross happens on the Austrian border. When the team re-groups a year later, they develop a plan to get the gold back from their traitorous comrade. Of course, in order to quickly pull off this heist, three Mini Coopers are utilized because of their small size and ease of maneuverability. However, even the best laid escape routes can be compromised when a helicopter comes into play. Will they get away with the gold once and for all?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 crazy car chases