December 13, 2013

The Bourne Legacy and Fast & Furious: Extending a Franchise

Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy

It's no secret that we live in a world of lucrative franchises, sequels, and reboots. They drive the bottom line for Hollywood and have a better chance of drawing crowds than an original concept. Studios bank on these productions each year, and that trend will only increase. A glance at the 2014 slate includes new superhero films with Captain America, Spider-Man, and the X-Men alongside popular adaptations of the Hunger Games series and The Hobbit. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for the ridiculous group of blockbusters in 2015. Continuing popular franchises seems like a no-brainer. On the other hand, what does a studio do when they want to extend a series that seems to have reached its end? It could be a trilogy that completed its story or a tired concept that's lost its appeal. The most obvious approach is a prequel or reboot, but there's also a chance to continue with more unconventional tactics. Two recent examples offer variations on keeping the fire going, with very different results. Let's take a look at how Universal and the forces between the Bourne and Fast and the Furious franchises tried to maintain and build on success.

When Jason Bourne swam to safety at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, it felt like a fitting end to the story of the former spy looking for his true identity. The Blackbriar operation was exposed, and the wrongdoers were brought to justice. Where else could the story go? Starting over in the Amazing Spider-Man mold wouldn't work since Matt Damon embodied the Jason Bourne character. One option was making a sequel and bringing him back into the mix with a new conspiracy. When Paul Greengrass and Damon left the project, it was decision time. The ultimate outcome was a film that overlapped with the original trilogy in an odd fashion. The Bourne Legacy begins during the middle of its predecessor, and it struggles to connect this new story with the last entry. All this effort seems unnecessary, and the connections could be explained using a few lines of dialogue. Writer/Director Tony Gilroy (who wrote the original trilogy) wants to start a new chapter but can't seem to remove himself from the earlier stories. Characters keep referencing Bourne to remind us that we're in the same universe. It's off-putting and goes beyond what's needed to continue the story.

Ed Norton and Stacy Keach in The Bourne Legacy

Beyond the awkward story overlaps, one question hangs over the entire film. Can Jeremy Renner lead a franchise? He's a capable actor with intensity who can shine in the right part. Even so, he seems out of place as the lead in this blockbuster. The lack of warmth makes it a challenge to care about whether he finds his meds and survives. Unlike Jason Bourne's relentless quest for his identity, Aaron Cross knows about his past. He's trying to retain his super smarts, which is understandable but not really a thrilling arc for a movie. There's little mystery to the plot because we have a large group of exposition machines hoping to track him down. Edward Norton takes his best shot at playing the emotionless villain who believes he's doing the right thing. He's joined by Stacy Keach, Corey Stoll, Scott Glenn, and many others as they try to uncover what we already know. Despite their efforts and high production values, it's a lot of bombast with very little payoff.

The Bourne Legacy returns to the original's format with Rachel Weisz joining the fun as a doctor who treated test subjects like Cross. Unlike Franka Potente's Marie, she's directly involved with the conspiracy. That doesn't help her case, however. Damon and Potente sold their characters' growing connection and made us root for them. When Marie was inadvertently killed at the start of the sequel, it pushed Bourne to seek revenge and continue his quest. Even when Cross makes a similar decision to jump off the grid at the end of this film, it feels less authentic because they lack the same chemistry. There's an impressive car chase at the end through Manilla, but the stakes feel less essential. We know they'll survive, and the mayhem lacks the tension of the actions scenes created by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. It's not a total mess and loses our interest because it's just so average. Gilroy takes few chances and creates a bland and predictable story.

Vin Diesel and Michele Rodriguez in Fast & Furious

The Fast and the Furious franchise was on life support after the middling response to Tokyo Drift, which starred Lucas Black and Zachary Ty Bryan. Vin Diesel did make a cameo that was shot after weak test screenings. When Paul Walker and Diesel decided to return for a fourth installment, it felt like a desperate move from a series with little staying power. Fast & Furious opened in April 2009 and drew huge crowds, which paved the way for two very popular sequels. Michele Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster also reprised this roles, and it felt like a direct follow-up to the original. That movie is basically a Point Break rip-off, but Diesel's hulking presence brings a weight that was missing from the sequels. Despite his limited range, there's enough charisma to sell ludicrous moments. He spends much of the fourth film grieving at the loss of his girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez) and seeking revenge, so he really just needs to stand and look angry. While audiences love car chases, this film's success is also due to their enjoyment of watching Diesel's chill approach.

Despite the commercial achievements, this movie is not very good. There's a reckless abandon to the story that keeps it entertaining, and Lin understands the type of film that he's making. It opens with a high-flying heist with Diesel's Dominic Toretto and Letty trying to rob a tanker. This sequence ends with a ridiculous driving stunt to avoid the out-of-control truck. It should be clear after the first 10 minutes that we're living in an alternate version of reality. The parties include hundreds of ridiculously attractive women who do nothing but dance and make out. The street racing leaves destruction everywhere, yet even the feds spend little time worrying about that side of it. I'm getting off track, however. The real question is how did this fun yet simple movie do so well? Audiences can't get enough of watching Vin Diesel and Paul Walker race cars. Now that they've added The Rock and others to the mix, it's only expanded the excitement from fans.

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast & Furious

The surprise for an $85 million production is the poor CGI, which stands out among the physical driving stunts. A fast-paced chase through underground tunnels barely resembles anything in the real world. When a series is centered around car chases, its greatest asset is making us believe there are actual cars performing those stunts. Once we see the strings, there are no stakes beyond seeing how the bad guys reach their end. Another challenge is the disparity between the honorable criminals like Dominic and the corrupt feds who have no ethics. Amazingly, Walker's Brian O'Conner has become an FBI agent after being a fugitive in the second film. He's clearly drawn to the criminal world, particularly the high-speed races. Putting him back with the authorities turns Fast & Furious into a near-remake that strikes the same beats as the original film. This makes it different than a typical sequel and more like a reboot that corrects the creative mistakes after the first movie.

Both franchises now find themselves at a crossroads, and for completely different reasons. The recent announcement of another Bourne sequel in 2015 with Jeremy Renner was greeted with a collective "really?" from nearly everyone. Bringing Lin on board as the director is interesting, but it seems like he'd do better working on a new series. Walker's death has raised questions about the future of the Fast and the Furious movies. The seventh installment was in production, but that's been halted after the loss of its star. They'll likely keep this cash cow rolling at some point, though it will seem different without one of its key players. There's still plenty of interest from audiences in seeing Diesel and The Rock embark on another high-flying caper. The potential box office is too high to exit after Walker's death. Unlike the Bourne series, there are enough players involved to maintain the successful pace well into the future.

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