I'm not a heavy cinema-goer, but in the past couple of weeks I watched two Hollywood action flicks. One I knew I wanted to see, one I picked on a whim. One was a widely promoted blockbuster, the other I'd never heard of. One was a vague disappointment, the other a pleasant surprise.
The two films were Red and Tron: Legacy, and now you know which was which. I picked Red because a local cinema was selling tickets for 5 euros, a friend had asked me to take her to the pictures sometime, and nothing else seemed even remotely interesting. (Also, a publicity shot featured John Malkovich in a dinner jacket loading a nail gun while Dame Helen Mirren aimed a heavy machine gun, so the film couldn't possibly be bad.) Tron I watched because it was Tron.
Now - though I was hyped by Tron's premise - I never saw it as a kid. I rectified this recently, and urge any other unfortunates to do the same. (A certain very popular video site may have a high-definition copy available, but I'm not saying anything about that.) What I knew when I walked into the theatre was that the sequel brought in two of the stars from the original, playing the same roles, and that it was set the same 27 years after the original that had passed in the real world. And I can say that (at least in a Hollywood picture) "retro", the current fad, has never been done this right. There are the repeated one-liners, of course, and the indispensables like light cycles and disc battles, and the obvious like the aforementioned actors. But the script goes above and beyond; it's clever. It takes the original premise and gives it a twist here and a turn there and ends up with something that's sure to draw in two generations of viewers.
Perhaps that was where it started going wrong. Overproduction is a ubiquitous problem in Hollywood these days. But what really bothered me was Legacy's firm refusal to be lighthearted in any way. It's like ad director Kosinski is so determined to leave behind the togas and frisbees of the original that his gritted teeth and furrowed brow permeate every shot. The characters remain cardboard-thin, but the film insists they're real people. The end result is embarrassing (just watch the nightclub fight).
And this, really, is why I even thought of juxtaposing Tron with Red. The latter is about retired CIA agents who realise they learned too much about important people when hitmen start coming after them, and decide to turn the tables in order to survive. A comic-book plot, in other words. The characters are presented as one-sentence stereotypes, but portrayed in a manner that had me immediately liking them, and directed so well that even the mandatory deaths and plot twists manage to surprise. The script stops just short of having the characters exclaim how it's like a conspiracy story - and instead has the resident paranoid's ramblings endearingly proven right.
Granted, Red is an action comedy, and Legacy is not. But just like Bruce Willis' deadpan rendition of his action mannerisms adds to the comedy in the former, Jeff Bridges' laid-back, The Dude-like Flynn in the latter is a welcome touch of humanity, but severely underutilised by the director. It gets especially awkward once the not exactly understated Messianic overtones ("Your father was the Creator!") begin pushing through. 3D still doesn't work - I was actually surprised how badly they worked for the digital vistas - even though the somewhat predictable idea of presenting real-world scenes in primarily 2D is a nice touch, and the lightjet sequence is a definite high point.
Then again, Daft Punk scores magnificently, Olivia Wilde's Quorra gets top marks as a woman protagonist (anyone else out there notice how much she resembles Faith from Mirror's Edge?), and no amount of podracing is ever going to measure up to a speeding lightcycle. Do yourself a favour and go see Tron: Legacy... immediately followed by Red.