By BRUCE DENNILL
The Hateful Eight / Directed by Quentin Tarantino / 16LPV 6.5
Star Wars: The Force Awakens / Directed by JJ Abrams / PGV 8
Jason Bourne / Directed by Paul Greengrass / 13V 7
Where Big Names are involved, films are often judged on more than what happens on the screen. It’s unavoidable, as reputations are often so entrenched that reality is difficult to judge, what with dozens of references and memories criss-crossing in viewers’ minds.
Few industry names are more tied into a reputation than Quentin Tarantino, and his films are expected to be events. The Hateful Eight is only that to some degree. Tarantino gives the piece his customary visual punch and the intricate detail in each scene and every conversation, and as such, it’s a better film than most of the competition in its niche. However, the fact that that niche is such a well-populated one is a problem. Though this is a Western powered by the bluster of such loudly charismatic stars as Kurt Russell and Samuel L Jackson, it is also essentially Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – a parlour thriller in which a group of people gather in a single location from which, for various reasons, they cannot escape. It’s familiar to the point that the thrill of the action is reduced because the results are expected, even if the means by which they are achieved is violent and bizarre. The latter facets do keep you involved, though – this is not one of Tarantino’s better creations, but his “average” is still more interesting than many people’s better work.
In the case of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the big name was one of cinema’s most successful franchises, a massively influential film force reeling after the second trilogy in the series was universally panned. This film was a much-needed injection of new blood – young British actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and Americans Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac in major roles – with a strong but relatively low-key link to what had come before in the return of Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fisher as Leia (now a general). The themes have not changed much – there is still the Force to be reckoned with and there is still a battle between the rebels and the latest version of the Galactic Empire, now called the First Order – but everything else has been refreshed in such a clever, authentic way that watching this film is as exciting for older viewers as it was to enter George Lucas’ imagined universe for the first time nearly 40 years ago. Ridley, Boyega and Isaac get the tone exactly right – check Ford’s still-smirking Solo for reference – and Driver does a decent job as the individual inevitably tempted by the Dark Side, though he gets rather too angsty in the last third of the film, hinting at the sullen poutiness of Haydn Christiansen in the previous couple of movies, performances for which that actor’s reputation rightly received a kicking.
The Jason Bourne franchise was in danger of a dip becoming a freefall after The Bourne Legacy, a film in which the titular agent was not even a protagonist, but this latest instalment reunites Matt Damon in the title role with director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the second and third films in the series – both huge hits. The long-running game of cat and mouse between the superbly adaptable Bourne (still battling to grasp aspects of his personal history) and the American intelligence agencies whose ethical fluidity could be revealed or confirmed by his actions continues, with Damon as convincing as ever, if less awesomely unpredictable (there are only so many tricks a scriptwriter can introduce). Vincent Cassel is the ruthless assassin tasked with taking him out and Tommy Lee Jones is the CIA Director overseeing the operation – strong performances both. But it is Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee, the Agency’s head of cyber intelligence, who is the best addition to both the cast and the storyline, dragging the narrative from a place where guns, fists and fast cars were the weapons of choice to a contemporary battlefield where the internet, computers and mobile phones can be as useful or as damaging as any of those. The structure of the piece sees viewers thrown into a series of consecutive set-pieces, each more ambitious than the next, with a hugely ambitious and brilliantly realised smash-up in Las Vegas the best of the bunch. There are a few suggestions that Lee and Bourne’s paths will cross in future projects, though Greengrass handles that possibility elegantly, rather than spending half the next film’s marketing budget on major hints in this one.