There isn’t an ounce of flab on Matt Damon’s body. The same can’t be said of the latest installment in the Bourne series. Damon is reprising his role as Jason Bourne, the memory-deficient super spy, after a nine-year hiatus in which Universal Pictures attempted to expand the franchise with Jeremy Renner in 2012’s The Bourne Legacy.
The main problem with this series is that each movie essentially tells the same story. After suffering amnesia during an assignment-gone-wrong in the first movie, Jason Bourne becomes a spy that is forever trying to piece together his own past. In each successive picture, Bourne gets a new clue about the secretive program that turned him into an elite assassin. The saving grace of the Bourne movies is the tightly wound structure of each mystery. The plot always takes a back seat to the chase, as the CIA desperately tries to stop Bourne from revealing the disturbing truth he uncovers about the secret program that created him. In Jason Bourne, there’s frankly too much plot, and it detracts from the action.
Spectre is a Bond fan’s Bond movie. This is the 24th film in a series spanning over 50 years, and after a talk with an expert in the field (my own editor), I was given a breakdown of the myriad homages the movie makes to its own legacy. If you have only a basic working knowledge of the Bond mythos (like me), or even if you know next to nothing about agent 007, Spectre still works as a thrilling spy-actioner. The film is certainly not without its flaws, but on the whole it delivers on several levels, and if nothing else is two and half hours of spy-movie fun.
Daniel Craig is the sixth actor to portray British MI6 secret agent James Bond and he begins his fourth outing in Mexico City, during a huge Día de Muertos celebration. The skeleton motif – think giant skeleton parade balloons and participants decked out in skull masks and make-up – is a direct callback to another Bond film, specifically the tops-and-tails sporting henchman Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die. It’s a great signal right at the start to let the initiated know that this is a Bond film steeped in its franchise’s lore.
For audiences who don’t know or care about any of that, this virtuoso sequence directed by Sam Mendes is still amazing on a purely technical level. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera magnificently swirls around the parade and up several floors of a hotel in a tracking shot that remains unbroken for almost five minutes. The tension that is created in the shot doesn’t just remain intact after the first cut, but actually ramps up with a fist-fight on a flying helicopter that is dazzling. Even if the rest of the movie was a disappointment (it’s not), the opening would be enough to redeem the whole film.
The Daniel Craig Bond films resurrected an aspect of the franchise that has been long dormant. From the early 1980s through 2002’s Die Another Day, each film has been a self-contained unit. Each villain and plot is disconnected from the others. With this latest series, the writers and producers have revived the oldest foe MI6 and Bond have ever faced: the shadowy criminal cabal known as Spectre. It’s a throwback that links the very first 007 adventure with the latest one, and fans of old-school spy craft movies, especially the Bond series, should love it. Simply put, Spectre is the Bondiest Bond film to come along in forty years.
Bridge of Spies is a tale of two films. The second half of Steven Spielberg’s newest historical drama is a good representation of the high level of quality associated with the director’s work. The finale is dramatically tense and emotionally powerful while remaining understated in the message it conveys. The first half stands in stark contrast to all of that; it’s hindered by its rote execution and the way it delivers moral lessons as subtly as an atomic bomb. Bridge of Spies could be leaner and more effective if Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman and the Coen brothers had concentrated solely on the second dramatic arc of the story. As it is, the film gives the overall impression of being unfocused.
The movie begins in 1957 as the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on suspicion of being a Soviet spy. The evidence against Abel is quite damning, but the U.S. government wants to show the world that everyone, even those accused of espionage, is afforded the same protections under the law. This protection boils down to having access to competent legal counsel. To that end, the FBI convinces James Donovan (Tom Hanks) – an insurance settlement lawyer with criminal trial experience – to represent Abel. Donovan believes in the American justice system, so he provides his client with a zealous defense, even moving forward with an appeal when Abel is convicted on all counts. He does this to the chagrin of his colleagues at the firm, the judge in the case, and even his own family.
It would be one thing if the writers stuck to the maxim of “show, don’t tell” to illustrate the moral superiority of treating even the worst criminals with the same dignity and humanity granted all U.S. citizens. After all, the case can be made that it’s a lesson worth re-learning since the war on terror began – especially for those in positions of power. But Charman, Spielberg and the Coens don’t just show. They tell, and tell, and tell. Tom Hanks is one of the finest actors of his generation, and his performance in Bridge of Spies is as good as you would expect. But by the fifth or sixth time he explains the importance of due process to those who want blood, the point becomes excruciatingly belabored.