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The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

The Bourne Supremacy is one of the hardest hitting action films I have ever witnessed, and it has far more to offer than just action set pieces.  There is no fat here like most action films have.  All of its lean meat and muscle is reserved for its visceral action and dramatic emotional story.  Supremacy was loosely based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, and whenever you’re basing a motion picture off of an international best-selling novel, chances are, you’re gonna have the potential for a very meaty story.  This is definitely the truth here.  This movie is very tight, very taut, deeply dramatic, and firmly rooted in reality.  It takes everything that was built in The Bourne Identity and capitalizes on it.

It’s two years after the events of The Bourne Identity, and ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still suffering from a broken mind.  His memories are fractured, and is awakened in the middle of the night more frequently than not.  Jason & Marie (Franka Potente) are now living in Goa, India, but meanwhile, Jason Bourne is about to be framed for two murders in Berlin, Germany.  A CIA team, headed by Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), is attempting to purchase classified Russian documents, but a Russian assassin named Kirill (Karl Urban) killed both men and stole the documents.  A planted fingerprint implicates Jason Bourne for all this.  Then, Kirill shows up in Goa, India to kill Bourne himself in order to erase any evidence to the contrary in framing Bourne.  Kirill believes he has completed his mission, but unknowingly, Bourne still lives.  However, Bourne believes that it is the CIA who sent a man to kill him, and this sends Jason on a dead set mission to find and take out those who he told to leave him alone.  The trail of planted evidence leads Pamela Landy to Operation: Treadstone, the elite team of assassins lead by the late Alex Conklin (Chris Cooper) of which Jason Bourne was the top operative.  Landy brings Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), Conklin’s boss, into the mix as she attempts to unravel the mystery of Jason Bourne, and why he has come out of hiding.  Now, Jason Bourne is coming down hard and fast on the CIA while the Agency is attempting to hunt down Bourne.

To their dismay, Bourne has been trained too damn good, and when Landy and the CIA believe they are completely on top of the situation, Bourne shows them that they are MILES behind him.  Bourne is like a mechanism – once you set it into motion, it cannot be stopped.  He lives up to his threat from the first film that there would be no measure to just how hard and how fast he would come down on these people if he even felt someone coming down on him.  Everything builds to explosive, intense levels to where the wrong move could get anybody killed.

All the action sequences top any of those in the first film.  Although, I have to say that director Paul Greengrass has far too much favoritism towards the notorious “shaky-cam” style of shooting.  I’ve never seen any of Greengrass’ previous work, and so, I can’t make any comparisons in that vein.  I don’t believe any blame is to be set on director of photography Oliver Wood as he handled the cinematography on The Bourne Identity in a very different fashion.  I’ve also seen numerous films he has shot including Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Face/Off, and TV’s Miami Vice.  So, I have to say that it was mainly Greengrass’ creative direction to use so much of this style of shooting and editing.  In some action sequences, between the shaky-cam photography and the fast-paced editing, it can become very difficult to discern what is happening.  You can literally get confused what is happening to whom.  You don’t know if that was Jason Bourne who’s getting smashed into walls or the other ex-Treadstone assassin.  Bad lighting is also to blame as some sequence take place in backlit locales making the actors bleed together.  This is my only gripe with the film, and despite its abundance, this film is just too intense and powerful to knock it down because of that.

This film’s car chase sequence is, at least, twice the sequence of the first film’s.  Mainly because it is the climactic action sequence of the film as Jason Bourne & Kirill turn the streets of Moscow into a demolition derby the likes of which you have never seen!  The car crashes are violent and visceral, and anyone who has ever been in a car crash – like myself – will be able to seriously feel it.  This car chase is beyond any I have ever seen put to film.  What makes the action in the Bourne films so impactful is just how grounded in gritty reality they are unlike how extravagant and fantastical the James Bond franchise had once become.  These films are very adult in manner and context.

Jason Bourne still struggles with the remnants of his past life, and must deal with who he once was.  He must come to terms with the pain and death he has inflicted upon others in order to move on with his new life, and to absolve those he has pained of the lies that have damaged their lives.  It is powerful and dramatic.  It’s the bigger, needed step towards the further evolution of the character of Jason Bourne.  He can never live in peace with himself until he is able to come to terms with the blood he has shed.  There’s just so much to say about this film that it’s difficult to find the right words to do so.  When you see it and are able to absorb it all, you will surely understand.  It’s a dramatic and painful journey of discovery for Jason Bourne.  Whether redemption will ever come is unknown, but I believe Bourne certainly takes the hardest first step towards that end by the film’s conclusion.  However, the film ends on a sly, upbeat note, and that is a sign of very fine and consistent storytelling.  I also like the consistency and continuity here from the first film with the reuse of the same passports and identification photos of Jason Bourne to the reuse of Moby’s very catchy tune “Extreme Ways” for the end credits.

John Powell delivers another fantastic score here that tops everything he did in The Bourne Identity.  That’s just about the decree with everything here (except for the aforementioned shaky-cam / editing gripes).  Matt Damon really delivers like you’ve never seen.  Until you see Damon in the role of Jason Bourne, you might have grossly underestimated his worth, ability, and quality as an actor.  Until this point, I had only seen Damon in mostly comedic roles in films like Ocean’s Eleven and Dogma before watching The Bourne Identity shortly before the release of this sequel.  In this film, however, Damon demonstrates just how powerful of a dramatic actor he can be.  You can see emotion in his face, in his eyes, and in his body language.  Simply put, his performance is deeply human, and will hit you deep within.  As Bourne’s true nemesis, Karl Urban was very impressive.  After seeing him in the latter two Lord of the Rings films and The Chronicles of Riddick, it was refreshing to see him in a more gritty, grounded film instead of a setting of fantasy.  The character of Kirill does not have much dialogue, but Urban has a strong, intense presence that just leaves you hungering for more.  The native New Zealander does nearly all of his dialogue in Russian, and even through a foreign language and subtitles, you still get a grim tone from him that is very potent.  Both Bourne & Kirill are like ciphers when they’re in their element, but when the action gets intense, Bourne becomes more focused while Kirill becomes even more enraged.  Regardless, they are both determined to burn the other into the ground.

I also have to say that I cannot get enough of Brian Cox.  I have loved his wide range of roles in Manhunter, The Ring, Super Troopers, X-Men 2, The Bourne Identity, and now, The Bourne Supremacy.  He’s a great actor with an abundance of natural charisma and always, at least, a hint of humor.  Words just cannot explain how enthralled I am with him.  He is tough to keep up with, and if you’re going to be sharing a scene with him, you’d best be on the very top of your game.  Considering how great and engaging of an actor he is, I find it surprising that he’s said to not view any of his own work.  Whatever the case, Brian Cox is absolute pure gold in my honest opinion.

Playing opposite Cox is Joan Allen, and she is strong and stern here.  As Pamela Landy, she doesn’t allow Abbott (Brian Cox) to shovel any bull her way.  She cuts through all the crap, and gets to the truth and the core of the matter.  She takes firm control of this entire situation and handles it with confidence.  Where others in her situation have faltered and fell, she holds strong.  Even when things start to go awry, she still holds onto a degree of solidarity.  You can write a character that way, but it takes a strong female talent to bring that sort of role up to its utmost potential.  Joan Allen is that talent.  Everyone else, up and down the line, puts in everything they’ve got here, and I could not find even one moment of weak acting.  A very admirable job to everyone including those involved with the casting of the film.

The only dent in the chiseled armor of this film is the shaky-cam, fast editing style.  I believe the same level of kinetic energy could have been sustained in these action sequences using more stable photography.  If that’s how it had been shot, then I would have no problems with the editing, but when you can’t discern what’s happening in these shots, cutting quickly from one to another does not help you to comprehend the visual storytelling any better.  Of course, with just how slam-bang amazing this movie is, I just can’t allow that to be much of a hindrance to my critique of it.  Dramatically, on levels of storytelling and acting, I don’t see how anything can be topped here, but I highly encourage future filmmakers of the franchise to give it every effort.

If you loved or even just liked The Bourne Identity, I believe The Bourne Supremacy will easily exceed all of your expectations.  In the context of the currently existing three films – Identity, Supremacy, & Ultimatum – this entry is the best!  It entirely launches itself far above the potential of Doug Limon’s first film, which was an excellent film in its own right.  While The Bourne Ultimatum was not a real down slope, Supremacy was such a massive step forward that the third film couldn’t achieve the same.  Plus, Supremacy seemed more dogged and relentless in all its aspects to create a far more hard hitting film that never let up.  Also, the ending of The Bourne Supremacy with Bourne and Landy had a lot of its meaning and character building strength diluted when it was revisited in The Bourne Ultimatum.  To say it simply, this is one of the best action thrillers of the last decade, and it helped launch the genre into a grittier direction that was timely and very welcome.


The Punisher (1989)

Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen.  Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on.  However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way.  Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films.  Many were planned, but very few got a final product.  None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons.  The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense.  In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender.  But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?

Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit.  Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher.  His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police.  Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits.  However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence.  Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia.  They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them.  Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto).  Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.

I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle.  He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders.  He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life.  He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt.  He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior.  On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work.  He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal.  Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor.  The motorcycle is a nice fit as well.  It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.

The supporting cast is decent enough.  Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark.  Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance.  Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher.  He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle.  So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.

Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different.  He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso.  He’s too laid back.  I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence.  I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants.  There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer.  No one ever appears to be more than he can handle.  It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.

In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed.  Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills.  At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency.  That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.

The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery.  Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere.  From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak.  There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family.  He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome.  Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back.  Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us.  Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante.  He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society.  He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned.  That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy.  The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character.  The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture.  They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.

So, does this film hit that mark?  Decently so.  I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character.  Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle.  What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.

Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget.  Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited.  Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting.  Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood.  This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot.  And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea.  The film itself was shot in Australia.  Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York.  So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal.  Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film.  Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida?  I don’t think so.  Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature.  The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been.  Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.

Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been.  Nor did it have a quality director behind it.  This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever.  It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success.  This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman.  That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director.  Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to.  Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.