Two determined superspies, two venerable movie franchises. The more venerable one, James Bond – by some standards, the longest-running film series in history – fattens its library this weekend with the release of Skyfall, starring Daniel Craig, who plays the suave secret agent for only the third time. Fighting in the defending champ’s corner is The Bourne Legacy, featuring a lead character so new, he’s not even named Bourne. Jeremy Renner plays the genetically enhanced secret warrior Aaron Cross, outrunning various government creeps who are trying to assassinate their own man to protect their black-ops program.
Both these films have outlived their source material. Ian Fleming and his novels aren’t even mentioned in the Skyfall credits, whereas Robert Ludlum’s work is the “inspiration” for the new Bourne. Both Cross and Bond are presumed dead at times in these movies, giving them the upper hand on their enemies as long as our heroes can maintain their cloak of secrecy. (This bit was also used in an earlier Bond film, You Only Live Twice, but in a franchise this hoary, there’s bound to be some repetition.) Oh, and there’s even some cross-pollination (Cross-pollination?) in the actors’ personal lives: One film’s star is married to the other one’s co-star.
Our contestants aren’t the sneak-in-and-quietly-steal-it type of operatives; they’re the Hollywood variety that starts big firefights and triggers huge, cool explosions. So this is going to be a sprawling, brawling, punch-out of a Smackdown. Clear the ring!
James Bond is one of Britain’s best secret weapons, a superspy who… ah, you knew all that stuff years ago. In this effort, he’s accidentally shot by his partner agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), during a mission in Turkey and presumed dead. But, surprise!, he survives, recuperating and enjoying himself on the beach somewhere exotic. Bond’s R&R is short-lived, however. He’s called to action when anonymous terrorists blow up a floor or two of MI6 headquarters in London, a stunt apparently meant to announce the perpetrator’s real intention, which is to expose the organization’s agents and compromise its effectiveness.
MI6 is in a state of emergency, having moved to a more secure temporary headquarters in a secret bunker network underneath London. Bond returns to offer his services to M (Judi Dench), and after a bit of catch-up calisthenics in this labyrinth, our man’s off to Shanghai to hunt the bad guy, a psychotic, rogue, ex-MI6 operative named Silva (Javier Bardem). In the rich tradition of evil genius antagonists, Silva actually engineers his arrest in order to place himself in England and wreak havoc there, or something like that. (Honestly, does anyone ever closely follow the logic in a Bond movie?)
Silva escapes. Bond chases him, he chases Bond, and eventually the two square off in the frigid and remote Scottish highlands.
Jason Bourne is a tough, smart guy who’s brain has been reprogrammed to… ah, forget it; he’s not in this film. Yes, his name’s in the title, but since one-time series star Matt Damon didn’t want to do installment No. 4, he gets a replacement for this effort. The Bourne Substitute is Aaron Cross (Renner), a man selected by others to become a human killing machine. Sadly, this is not the best occupation to have once the government programs concerning such people are exposed by Bourne (for all the exciting details, see 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, which takes place roughly around the same time as Legacy). Sinister government types decide to kill Cross’ program and everyone in it. So, as usually happens, our hero has to go on the run.
He has help, though, in the form of Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz, who by odd coincidence is Daniel Craig’s wife), a scientist working in the lab that services the program’s operatives. She’s the only survivor of a massacre at the lab engineered by those same government thugs who decided to ace the black ops programs. Yeesh, our tax dollars at work, right?
So we settle into the usual Bourne proceedings – the good guys skedaddle, and the hot n’ bothered villains use their overwhelming technological advantages to track them down and exterminate them. But Cross is clever and crafty, thanks in part to the brain-enhancing pills he’s constantly fed by lab geeks like Shearing. He can win lopsided firefights, prevail in motorcycle chases, and escape drone strikes with the best of them.
Since the number of Bond movies now exceeds the ring count of old redwood trees, installments in the series long ago settled into a package of clichés. There’s the cool tailored suit, the signature cocktail, the lovely women, the odd-looking evil genius, the gadgets. James Bond is the crowd-pleasing McDonald’s of spy movie franchises; you know it will always be cooked and served the same way.
Bourne is a younger and thinner series, but since it’s so high-concept, it was able to fix its conceit very early: The Other Side wields the budget, the firepower and the technology; Bourne/Cross has the wit and the resourcefulness. Mash the two together and guess who wins. The Bourne Legacy doesn’t veer too much from the usual script although, thankfully, said script is written by the talented brother team of Tony and Dan Gilroy. Tony, who also directed, knows his way around a camera, so the story is set up and unfolds well, moves along crisply, and cranks up the tension with the action sequences. The Gilroys have done a good job extending the Bourne formula without Ludlum’s help, assuming a formula is what we want.
Skyfall isn’t as crisp and starts to feel draggy toward the end of its unnecessarily long two hours and twenty minutes. After all, action/spy stories are best served up like Bourne, fast and tight.
On the brighter side, although this Bond has its tropes, writers Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (working with director Sam Mendes), try their best to make them seem fresh. For example, in what has to be a shocker, we see Bond score only two women (eh, maybe three, as seems to be implied). The Macau casino scene isn’t too long, and the bartender seems to know how to customize our man’s martini without him needing to spout the tired old line.
Where Bourne’s filmmakers strive to stamp the new film with the franchise pattern, Skyfall’s creators weave a theme through the proceedings, and it’s not what you’d expect. Bond actually finds himself in circumstances without the high-tech gadgets and toys he’s usually equipped with. He’s outfitted only with a radio homing device and a pistol which, admittedly, in a nod to a tradition of pretty cool gadgetry, has skin-pattern recognition technology. With these and a few well-placed but zero-tech traps, he must outfox and ultimately defeat Silva and his minions. There are even a few unexpected developments in the character sphere, particularly with M’s story arc, and in the surprise re-introduction of an individual or two who were once regulars in the series.
Quick, what were the distinguishing characteristics of the last McDonald’s you ate in? James Bond long ago settled into that same kind of routine, while Bourne chose to follow that trail from birth. Each series had its good installments, and the two current iterations are both well made by filmmakers who are great at what they do. But it’s the ops pulling Bond’s strings who take the most chances and introduce a new element or two to spruce up the material, unlike the creators of the more workmanlike and standard Bourne 4. So our Top Spy in this contest is the man across the Atlantic, in Skyfall.