Jason Bourne

Black Widow

23/07/21

Cineworld

After the apocalyptic smorgasbord of the Avengers trilogy, Marvel Studios seem to be struggling to find their proper niche in the cinema.

Black Widow has been a conspicuous victim of the lockdown, its release delayed by almost two years. Finally, here it is, gamely attempting to make its presence felt under the restrictions of a 12A certificate, where the excessive violence feels somehow at odds with what the filmmakers are actually allowed to show. This seems an ill-advised move. Cartoon violence is one thing, but Black Widow appears to have all the smashing, bashing and limb-breaking of a more realistic depiction without any of the consequences. Director Cate Shortland has to employ a lot of shakey-cam, so we don’t linger on injury detail. Protagonists emerge from bruising combat with a discreet smear of blood at the corner of the mouth. It’s unconvincing to say the least.

Maybe a 15 certificate would have been a better option?

The film is, by necessity, a prequel. It begins in 1995 in Ohio, where Russian super-soldier Alexie Shostakov (David Harbour) and his ‘wife,’ Melina (Rachel Weisz), are posing as a happy family, with their two ‘daughters,’ Natasha and Yelena in tow. But when evil forces close in on them, they are forced into running for their lives. Yelena winds up being a ‘widow,’ a genetically engineered soldier, for the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), while Natasha defects to the West. She grows up to be an Avenger and, of course, in time, Scarlett Johansson.

In 2016, Natasha finds herself on the run once again, this time from her American employers, and it isn’t long before she reconnects with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). After first attempting to beat the crap out of each other – as you do – they team up and go in search of their ‘parents.’ Alexie’s in a penitentiary and first needs to be sprung, while Melina is hard at work in a remote outpost teaching pigs to stop breathing (that’s not a misprint BTW). Subsequently, the family decide to team up in order to take down Dreykov and what has now become a massive army of widows, all of them turned into mindless servants by the liberal application of er… pheromones.

Much bloodless punching and kicking dutifully ensues – at times, this feels decidedly like Marvel’s take on the Jason Bourne movies, only with added Spandex – before everything culminates in one of those big action set-pieces which takes place aboard Draykov’s sky-station.

The screenwriters make a valiant effort to establish a feminist statement amongst all this Sturm und Drang, but the effect is horribly overdone, the proverbial sledgehammer/nut scenario played out at maximum volume with minimal coherence. While we should definitely be pleased that a mainstream superhero franchise is finally trying to get in step with female empowerment, it needs to be done in a less ham-fisted manner than this. Once again, here’s a clear case of what is essentially an animated comic strip getting ideas above its station.

Johansson and Pugh are both good in their roles – indeed the film’s best moments are rooted in their bickering, competitive sisterhood – while Harbour is assigned the role of comic relief, a blundering Russian oaf addicted to shots of vodka. Overweight and out of practice, he can still put up a decent fight when he needs to. Weisz seems criminally short-changed in her thankless role as mother/scientist/all-round ass-kicker.

Marvel aficionados will know to hang around for the inevitable post-credits sequence, but I feel so underwhelmed by Black Widow, I really can’t be bothered to wait. Another helping? No thanks, I’ll pass.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Jason Bourne

Unknown

30/07/16

The Bourne franchise has been through some interesting twists and turns since its inception in 2002. Created by director, Doug Limon, the first instalment was successful enough to engender two assured sequels, both directed by Paul Greengrass, at which point its influence could be seen in several other films, most notably in Casino Royale, where the Bond series could almost have been accused of plagiarising Greengrass’s frantic, shakey-cam style. When Matt Damon and Greengrass both announced they’d had enough, The Bourne Legacy attempted to fill the gap with Jeremy Renner stepping into the lead role, but it failed to do the kind of numbers that the previous films had achieved and many people thought that it had run its course.

Now, despite all their protestations, Damon and Greengrass are back at the helm and the big question on everyone’s lips is ‘can they pull it off a third time?’

The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ There may not be much depth to these films but they do grip like a steel vice as they race relentlessly from one chase to another, while all the supporting characters gleefully double cross each other at every opportunity. This is kinetic cinema at its most compelling. It puts you right in the driver’s seat and it’s an enthralling, exciting ride.

When we first meet Jason in this adventure, he’s been reduced to illegal boxing to make ends meet, something he does with his customary mixture of skill and melancholy – but when Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) comes back into his life, it soon becomes evident that Bourne is not yet finished with Treadstone and it is not finished with him. Reptillian CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is still pulling the strings and now he has ambitious new recruit Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to help him engineer the capture of his most elusive enemy. He also has The Asset (Vincent Cassel) hiding behind every corner with a high-powered rifle, ready to blow Bourne’s brains across the screen should he try to evade the elaborate traps that have been set for him by the powers-that-be. And just to add a touch of contemporary relevance, there’s a Mark Zuckerberg-like entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) who’s multi-billion dollar social network empire has, it appears, been built on rather dodgy foundations.

Stir it all together with a selection of pulverising car chases, brutal punch ups and vicious shoot-outs and we have another pulse pounding instalment of one of the most successful franchises in film history. If you liked the other films, you’ll enjoy this one. You might argue that Jason Bourne offers nothing new to the established formula but when it’s put together as brilliantly as this, you’ll get no complaints from me.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney