Review: TRON: LEGACY

The original Tron has the distinction of being among the first three films I remember seeing in the theater as a kid and not coming away overly in love with. As a 9-year old I knew that for all the snazzy 1982 visuals it wasn't a great film. The other two were The Black Hole and Clash of the Titans.

Buoyed by their effects and respective mythologies, Tron and Titans went on to become cult classics, while The Black Hole has become a flick that's been mostly forgotten.

Time and home video has had away of being very kind to imperfect movies, especially imperfect movies with untapped potential. As a film set entirely in the world of computers Tron was loaded with it. Corporate espionage and intellectual property disputes*, sentient programs exhibiting--and some struggling with--free will, an underlying religious allegory, it's a movie that presaged concepts large, ala the internet, and small, aka avatars. With shows like Battlestar Galactica proving you can take a cult property rich with ideas and give it not only a new life, but a makeover that mines those ideas much deeper than most thought possible, an update of Tron wasn't a wholly bad idea.

Using the original as a jumping off point, Tron: Legacy picks up the story seven years later in 1989. After proving that his code was stolen by a rival, and consequently becoming CEO, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has elevated Encom to an unprecedented level of success. The company is not only the Microsoft of its universe, under his leadership it's also become the Apple of its time.

In secret, Flynn has been exploring and developing radical ideas like quantum teleportation and digital dna that he believes will revolutionize everything from medicine to religion. With his best friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) he's only shared vague snippets of what he's found. And with his son Sam, he's told him bedtime tales about a place called The Grid, a world he's created with the help of two programs named Tron and Clu. A place Flynn hopes to one day show Sam himself. However, the night he tells Sam about The Grid is the same night he disappears**.

Twenty years later, without a word about what happened to his father, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has grownup to despise the company his father built. Every year he pulls a major prank on Encom. His latest, breaking into the company's servers and releasing its new operating system to the internet just minutes before the official release and the company's simultaneous debut on the Tokyo stock exchange.

After being released from jail, Alan shows up to gently chide the now 27-year old Sam about his latest venture in undermining the very company that affords him the luxury of Ducati motorcycles and spectacular waterfront views of the city. And as Alan puts it, for someone who claims to have no interest in Encom, as much thought and planning that must go into his pranks, Sam has a funny way of showing that disinterest.

However, the real reason for Alan's visit is that he got a page--yes, on an honest to goodness pager--from the old arcade Flynn owned and has lain abandoned, and curiously powered and still full of videogames, for decades. Although sarcastically dismissive about a possible late in the game reunion with pops, Sam heads straight for the vacant building to investigate. And thus begins how Sam discovers that The Grid does indeed exist, and more importantly, where his father has been for the past two decades.

As a story about a rogue program wanting to crossover into the physical world, Tron: Legacy isn't a train wreck. And unlike its predecessor it's at times a bit more involving. Especially in a few of the action scenes. The filmmakers have taken advantage of the advances in special effects to amp up the lightcycles and to take them out of moving in two dimensions into three, making for some dazzling set pieces. The disc games, unfortunately, aren't quite as well thought out though and never really become all that thrilling.

Overall, Legacy has a few glaring plot holes and a jumble of underdeveloped motivations. Why lure someone into The Grid if you're not going to post someone where they can see when said someone arrives? Or, why put that same someone in dangerous potentially life-ending scenarios if that someone's presence is meant to be a "game changer"? Why introduce the concept of genocide, only to relegate it to mere exposition, and for its consequences to not have any active*** influence on the story? And if you can't get out of The Grid, how can you communicate with anyone outside of The Grid****?

Even more so than Tron, Tron: Legacy is overflowing with unexplored concepts that could have expanded the mythos in a myriad of directions. The film's major flaw is that it's really Flynn's story that has the most meat on it, not Sam's.

As a man who first loses his son to create a new digital frontier and then loses that world when he's betrayed by one of his own creations. As a man who has watched his breakthrough discoveries become the key to possibly destroying a world he hasn't seen in twenty years, Flynn is a tragic hero whose journey is instantly more intriguing than that of a 27-year old whose adventure starts only because he happened to unintentionally stumble down a digital rabbit hole. Plus, as it's demonstrated in the last half of the film, building a story around Flynn's inability to bring order back to the very universe he's created, even though he has god like mastery over The Grid, could have elevated Legacy from being a standard sci-fi action flick into a epic quest for redemption.

The film's second major flaw is in featuring some of the most underwhelming secondary characters to grace a big budget action film in quite sometime.

Rinzler, a dual disc wielding grid warrior, is meant to be a badass. Yet he gets not enough to do, and instead, the filmmakers decide that giving an inordinate amount of screentime to a sniveling suckup is a better way to go--hello, if you're going to make Rinzler your Darth Vader, he shouldn't be playing guard dog.

Olivia Wilde's Quorra, the young woman who consistently saves Sam's ass, isn't entirely irrelevant to the overall proceedings. And considering she's lived her entire life on The Grid, Quorra's wide-eyed innocence and naivety are in and of themselves not bad traits. However, it's getting pretty tiresome watching the girls ably illustrate their ability to kickass in action flicks, yet to only do that in service of the boys at every turn. It's most disappointing when you realize that Sam's only real claim is that Encom, and by extension The Grid, are his by birthright, not by anything he's actually done. In fact, if you consider Quorra's backstory, you'll realize that of everyone in the picture, as someone who has lost as much, if not more than Flynn, she not only should be more driven than Sam, she has more right to The Grid than he does.

Lest you think I'm only here to beat up on this film, let me point out a few more things that do standout. Bridges as Flynn is a highlight. His Flynn is not only fun to watch, he capably makes lines like "it's bio-digital jazz man" seem natural and in context logical. Some of the production design, such as Flynn's home Off Grid pops. And Michael Sheen as night club owner Castor, brings a campy maniacal energy.

As a film, Tron: Legacy isn't a total embarrassment. And compared to several other big budget, effects heavy releases of the last few years it's one of the more coherently told and even better acted flicks. As the continuation of a franchise it doesn't build on the original in any significant fashion, and much as it was with the first go round, nor do the filmmakers do enough to make all the proceedings add up to anything more than a so-so story, decently told.

* Most won't remember, but early in the life of the PC there were some real questions about how to legally, and ethically, treat copyright and intellectual property when programs could be easily copied and several programmers could bring differing levels of contributions to one project. Sounds a bit familiar doesn't it?

**Isn't that how it always happens in films? it's a wonder anyone would gamble telling other folks about the fantastical realms they visit, lest they also become metaphorical fodder for milk cartons.

***I know someone will argue that it does have some bearing on the story, however, go back and watch the film. It's just a lazy way to make a character more important, and setup possibilities for a sequel, without actually giving that character much to do.

****Curious since communication between programs and users is an integral part of the original film.

Review: TRUE GRIT

Remakes have always been a tricky minefield. You can stumble on magic and get An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of Love Affair (1939), that surpasses the original--no small feat since Love Affair is still a damn good film. Or as the Coen Brothers have discovered themselves with their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, even with a two-time Oscar winner in the lead, you can create a leaden movie that's not a wholly terrible film, just a boring one, with some questionable character choices*.

Even with that on their resume, there was little doubt that in the hands of the Brothers Coen, a True Grit redo wasn't insurmountable.  While the 1969 version is one of John Wayne's better known flicks, and is the film that finally won The Duke an Academy Award, the film is far from perfect.

As the story of a young 14-year old girl seeking revenge for the senseless murder of her father in the 1870's, the 1969 True Grit is at heart a film probably released 10 years past its prime--which is ironic since the novel was released in 1968. The first half of the film, before the action moves out of the town and into Choctaw territory, feels long and drawn out. For a revenge tale, Henry Hathaway's direction is often too lite rendering some of the  humor a tad more campy than probably intended. And although released during the height of the modern day Women's Movement, Mattie's dogged determination and intelligence is at times treated with the cinematic equivalent of a pat on the head.

It truly is John Wayne's performances as Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn that elevates True Grit into a minor classic. (Although I enjoyed Kim Darby's Mattie Ross to a degree, overall I think Hathaway did her a disservice. I couldn't help think that I was watching a Western version of Disney's 1977 live-action Candleshoe...and I while like Candleshoe, as a contrast with True Grit's underlying ruminations about justice and revenge, that's not a good thing).

How different is the Coen Brothers take on True Grit? For those who freakout about remakes, they may be elated--or disappointed, it's always hard to tell with those folks--to learn that a good 90  percent of the 2010 version is identical to it's progenitor.

As perusal for the Brothers, they've punched up the dialogue with colloquialisms and an idiosyncratic logic that exudes an impeccable sense of place and custom. Few characters use language to poke, prod and provoke each other as they can in a Coen Brother's film. Mattie potently and skillfully wields words with such proficiency, she capably handles men three times her senior and twice her size. They also pull off the neat trick of establishing both Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf's toughness, while simultaneously revealing that no amount of machismo--although LaBoeuf is clearly the more sensitive of the two--can hide when words have cut them deep.

The greatest, at times subtle, distinction in the two films lies in how the Coen's approached the story, namely adhering more closely to the novel and telling the story entirely from Mattie's point of view. It's a choice that makes all the difference as iconic scenes, such as when Cogburn and LaBoeuf try to leave Mattie behind and she defiantly crosses the river on horseback, achieve a level of resonance and power not found in the original. And to be fair, they play out much differently between the two films, however the disciplined focus on Mattie in the Coen's version, injects the scenes at the dugout and most of the third act with a taught tension that makes everything hum with energy.

For Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld they had a difficult task at hand, stepping into roles that have stood for four decades.

Bridges's Cogburn is more than a curmudgeon, he's an SOB who isn't above kicking kids, not once, not twice, but three times. It's a performance that's just plain fun to watch. Yet, the real praise should go to Steinfeld whose Mattie has a tenacity derived more from her intelligence and maturity than an innate stubbornness. It's a shame that since the 1970s, roles like this have become rarer and rarer for young actresses. Hopefully Steinfeld won't see her career stall as did for Darby.

As for Matt Damon it's a bit easier. Glen Cambell's turn at LaBeouf is serviceable at best. That's not to downplay what Damon does, because in partnership with the Coen's they've created a character who's dogged adherence to the life as a Texas Ranger and sincerity makes it easy to see the character featured in his own story**.

After three decades and fifteen films, there are elements you can expect in nearly every Coen project. Yet, here, their noted use of irony is essentially absent. As old school film fans, their love of classic Hollywood genres, especially of noir and screwball, is usually evident in every frame. And although this is a western, they rarely insert anything that yells "hey this is a Western, remember those." Some may argue the point, however, this is arguably the first played for straight Coen flick. As a result, there are moments in TRUE GRIT that are like seeing your Dad cry. You get flashes--especially in the last 15 minutes--of emotions rarely a part of the Coen Brothers playbook.

*We're looking at you Gawain MacSam aka Marlon Wayans.

**I'd even go far to say they've taken bits of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and amped up his more respectable virtues and intelligence.