Monday, July 1, 2013

Film Pairings — James Bond and Jack Reacher, Peas In Separate Pods

There’s never a shortage of superheroes.  At the moment The Lone Ranger and the zillionth portrayal of Superman, are dazzling or disappointing filmgoers.

However, we home-alone viewers with Netflix accounts are not necessarily “trending.”  We are catching up. The local theaters are no longer showing the two films I highlight here.  They are Skyfall, the latest of many James Bond films and Jack Reacher, the first of what is likely to be a new franchise searching for iconic status and profits.  They are about smart, tough guys who save the world or, in Reacher’s case, a tank of a man who cleans up a piece of a smaller domain.  The main characters in each are human though impervious to death. In both cases their near superpower comic-book feats take an immense suspension of disbelief.  Yet we do suspend it even if the Reacher character, designed by his creator at a towering, and intimidating 6’5, 250pounds,” is played by the diminutive Tom Cruise.  We want to believe.

When I was in my teens I read all of the 12 slim volumes of Ian Fleming’s 007 adventures.  I was mesmerized.  This was before I saw any of the movies.  I probably would have cast (as I learned that Fleming preferred as well) the sophisticated David Niven before the earthier Sean Connery, though it didn’t take long for me to buy into the Scotsman. I was disappointed to learn that he and Bond had separated after seven films, but quickly accepted Roger Moore who, in many ways for me, better captured the original, light-hearted spirit of the character.  I thought Pierce Brosnan split the difference and did so very well. So too have I, an avid cinema fan, accepted and welcomed Daniel Craig, though it seems we’ve almost come full circle — the most solemn of the lot.  He seems old and grumpy (I can identify with that), not the original, carefree Bond. This is also in keeping with the way we are seeing American superheroes these days, wit buried under stone.

Craig’s two Bonds, like it or not, have changed the Bond franchise. To drive the point home in Skyfall, with appropriate symbolism, the elegant Aston Martin is blown up on a dystopian landscape not disappearing out of the frame on a scenic highway along the French Riviera as it should.  This Bond is weary, sullen, craggy, yet demands your attention. He seems, perhaps — his superhuman feats aside — too human.  There’s not an ounce of a Devil-May-Care martini in his veins.

For Jack Reacher, maybe it would have been too easy to cast someone like Ryan Gosling as Reacher, the character inhabiting the best selling 17-book series by Lee Child.   Or maybe Channing Tatum.  Seriously. For me Tom Cruise is a sort of journeyman leading man.  And a case could be made that physicality aside, this was a perfect role for him.  Not a lot of nuance here to worry about.  As we expect from both films it is about right and wrong, good and evil.  We root for our heroes to win so we can go to bed believing the world is safe for the few minutes it takes to go off into our own dreamland.  These two heroes are not cut from the same cloth, however.

Bond, however rebellious at times, works for the bureaucracy in service to what we must presume or at least hope to be a larger good.  After all, he pretty much saves the world in each adventure.  Not so, Reacher.  There’s a line in the movie, which I don’t have precisely; but the gist is our hero doesn’t believe in the law or justice.  He believes in what is right.  Right is what is right in his world and the story may be written so we, in our secret vigilante hearts, agree and root for the three-in-one protagonist — judge, jury and executioner.  We do so with, I hope, a little caution from our better selves.

The director and cinematographer do a good job conveying Reacher’s worldview if it can be described so broadly.  Bond is filmed against incredible, wide-sweeping landscapes. It’s a big world with lots of moving parts.   In Reacher the camera is completely focused on Cruise.  He is constantly, slowly, importantly entering a room with music and lingering camera angles that emphasize his self-assured domination of the small world around him.  It is all immediate and personal.  It is all about him.  He is standing tall.  That seems to be all that matters.

Both films provide a couple of hours of worthwhile escape from our less eventful daily lives.  Jack Reacher is not complex as a movie or character.  The upside of that is the film is finely plotted and clearly told. Robert Duvall makes a cameo, as does Werner Herzog. Also on screen is the talented Richard Jenkins, who is clearly under utilized here.   Of the two, Bond is not only richer cinematically (also more than twice the budget), but also treats us to a cast of acting legends.  In addition to Daniel Craig, we have Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem and Albert Finney.

For the evening viewing of Bond, a martini is appropriate of course, if for no other reason than a tribute to an earlier era.  For Reacher, maybe a Pabst to reflect a film and a lead actor, both delivering the goods in an efficient and timely manner.

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