Free Solo


Why ask why?

(2018) Documentary (National Geographic) Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless, Peter Croft, Deidre Wolownick. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

 

It is in man’s nature to push the boundaries; if there’s a goal to be achieved, it is human nature to want to top it. This goes through all endeavors of life – physical, artistic and financial. Being the best at something gives us a sort of patina of immortality. Still, there are some goals so dangerous, so daunting that there can be no topping it. In fact, there are goals that some would call insane.

Alex Honnold has one of those and it involves Yosemite’s infamous El Capitan. El Cap, as climbers call it, is the Mecca of rock climbing. 3,000 feet of nearly sheer granite, it is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Rock climbers from all over creation flock to Yosemite Valley to try their hand at it and a good many do succeed. However, all of those who have done so have used ropes and safety equipment to make their way up the rock. Honnold wants to be the first to free solo El Cap – that is, climb without any safety equipment or ropes altogether, relying only on his body and a bag of chalk dust to keep his grip from getting slippery.

Climbing El Capitan in the best of circumstances requires rigid focus; one mistake can result in a fall. Even with safety equipment, people die climbing El Capitan. It is seriously no laughing matter and to do so without harnesses and pitons and ropes makes most sensible climbers’ blood run cold. Hell, I know nothing about rock climbing and the thought of it makes my genitalia shrivel. One mistake for a free soloist on El Capitan and the unfortunate will end up a puddle of gore on the valley floor. Pro climber Tommy Caldwell, who made his own history in conquering the previously thought unclimbable Dawn Wall, recalls that most of the people he knew who made Free Soloing an essential part of their lives are dead.

The film mainly focuses on the preparation for the historic climb. The husband and wife directing team of Chin (a climber in his own right and a friend of Honnold) and documentary filmmaker Vasarhelyi painstakingly set up their camera positions, wanting to keep close enough to get great shots of Alex but also far enough away so that their presence doesn’t interfere with the climb. Chin muses at one point about how ethical his participation is, when at any moment he could see his friend plummeting through the frame to his death.

The question is why do it and that’s never really satisfactorily answered. Honnold has a girlfriend (McCandless) who is steadfast and ends up moving in with him; previous to that Honnold was living out of his van. Not because he didn’t have money – his books and sponsorship deals have been lucrative – but because he preferred not to have any commitments. McCandless is well aware that when it comes to scaling mountains, she will finish second every single time. When it’s time for Honnold to make his ascent, she is sent away and the worry is absolutely heartbreaking.

There is an extreme amount of selfishness that has to do with any sort of obsession and we see it here. The worry of those who love him may register somewhat with Honnold but at the end of the day their excruciating emotional turmoil doesn’t matter enough for him to call off his climb. To be fair this tends to be the truth for those who achieve things that are extraordinarily difficult – I’m sure Neil Armstrong’s wife wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of his going to the moon – but we are left to look at Honnold and other achievers of that nature to be, well, jerks. Honnold seems nice enough and he’s certainly charismatic but the filmmakers are only looking at one aspect of him because that’s what the movie is all about. Consequently he comes off seeming pretty one-dimensional.

It also must be said that the 20 minute sequence of Alex’s historic climb are some of the most tense and nerve-wracking moments in any movie this year. The climb, which lasted just under four hours, is captured with vertigo-inducing shots of the drop below Honnold’s feet and set to the sound of his breathing. It is inspiring in some ways, but also terrifying.

This is a powerful chronicle of the power of achievement and the obsession that fuels it. My issue is that some kid somewhere is likely to be inspired to follow Honnold into free soloing and end up dying because of it. For that reason, I really hesitate giving this the kind of acclaim the film probably deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The final climbing sequence is edge-of-the-seat kind of stuff and is the best sequence in the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers really focus in on Alex’s obsession to the exclusion of everything else pretty much, making him a very limited personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much peril and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Honnold and Caldwell recently became the first climbers to scale the Nose on El Capitan in under two hours.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dawn Wall
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Randy’s Canvas

Everest (2015)


Climb ev'ry mountain!

Climb ev’ry mountain!

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Martin Henderson, Justin Salinger, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Reilly, Ang Phula Sherpa, Tim Dantay, Charlotte Bᴓving. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

There are a certain type of people who feel compelled to push themselves to the limits. They don’t feel truly alive unless they are facing down death. Most of us don’t require this kind of validation of our own supremacy, but those that do can’t live without it. Thee and me will never climb Mt. Everest simply because we don’t need to. Others, however do it because they have to.

\At one time, Everest was the province of experienced mountain climbers and at that only the best of that breed. However, New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke) figured out that there was money to be made in getting ordinary travelers (who could afford it and were in good enough physical condition) to the top of Everest. His company, Adventure Consultants, specialized in getting people to the summit of Everest – the highest place on Earth.

The 1996 climbing seasons sees a proliferation of these sorts of outfits, all clustered in Everest’s base camp. Rob Hall is bringing an experienced team of climbers including Sherpa Ang Doree (Sherpa), Andy “Harold” Harris (Henderson) and clients Doug Hansen (Hawkes) who had nearly made it to the summit the previous year but was turned back by Hall 100 meters from the top, Yasuko Namba (Mori) who was summiting the final of the Big Seven – the seven highest peaks on seven continents – which is an accomplishment only elite climbers ever meet and Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Brolin). Accompanying them is respected writer Jon Krakauer (Kelly) who’d be providing much needed publicity for the company.

At base camp is den mother Helen Wilton (Watson) who would be overseeing the operation from there as well as team physician Caroline MacKenzie (Debicki). A close friend of Rob’s, American Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) runs a rival team. Scott is known for being more of a go-for-it guy whereas Rob tends to be more methodical. As the two discover that the sheer number of climbers are creating bottlenecks on the mountain, they determine to work together so as to reduce traffic. Scott’s Russian right hand, Anatoli Boukreev (Sigurösson) is there to lend a hand.

Waiting at home is Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) who is about to give birth to their daughter, an event Rob is planning on being home in Christchurch for. Also at home is Peach Weathers (Wright), a no-nonsense Texas woman who is a mite ticked off at her husband who is undertaking this adventure despite her distinct disapproval – and despite having had eye surgery recently.

After months of preparing, the time for the final ascent to the summit arrives but things start to go wrong almost right away; the Sherpas who were supposed to have fixed the ropes had inexplicably failed to do so, leaving the guides to fix them on trail, causing long delays. The teams end up staying on the peak long past the turnaround time of 2pm. And headed towards them is a monstrous rogue storm. This would be the worst day of fatalities on the mountain (until 2014 when ironically enough an avalanche occurred while the second unit was filming in Nepal would break the record) and who survives and who doesn’t is an act of will and sheer luck.

The story itself is riveting. Those who have read Krakauer’s book on the subject or watched the documentary that was made in 1998 will know in advance who survives but even so there’s a tension here that is right up there with any movie released this year. The performances are for the most part terrific; Clarke has become a very reliable lead although he hasn’t ever had a breakout performance that would mark him as an A-lister and this won’t be the one that does so either, although in many ways it is one of his most memorable pieces of work. Brolin and Hawkes, solid actors both, continue to do impressive work. Watson ends up being the emotional core of the film.

There are some truly heartbreaking scenes here, the most notable being one where the wife of one of the trapped climbers contacts him on satellite phone, urging him to keep moving forward, pleading with him all the time knowing that he is dying even as he speaks to her. We see the horror unfold as Helen keeps in contact with survivors, discovering the grim toll taken by the mountain.

This is almost an impossible story to tell properly; for one thing, giving audiences a sense of the mountain’s size and grandeur really can’t be done with just pictures. Some of the footage was taken on Everest itself but a lot of studio re-creation was done, particularly for some of the more perilous scenes and in all honesty I wasn’t convinced. Still, the story is so compelling that I was able to overlook the flaws of the film and enjoy it for what it was; an adventure and tragedy rolled into one.

Like Meru, this isn’t a movie that really motivated me to want to go and climb Everest on my own. Everest at least makes an attempt to explain why men are willing to climb up to the cruising altitude of a 747 where the air is so thin that the body begins to die, but in the end we never really get a clear picture of why – perhaps because the men doing this thing don’t really know themselves. Oh, Doug Harris does say he’s doing it to prove to his kids that nothing is impossible – even a letter carrier on the summit of Everest – but is the price for a lesson like that truly worth it? I think that a lot of kids whose mothers and fathers didn’t come back from this trip would say it wasn’t.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat filmmaking. Some very solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t give us a sense of the majesty or the size of the mountain.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of intense and graphic peril, some gruesome images and a bit of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the bodies of all the victims of this expedition have been found, all but one remain on the mountain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air: Death on Everest
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sicario

Meru


On the shark's fin.

On the shark’s fin.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin, Aimee Hinkley, Jeremy Jones. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

The limits of human endurance are hard to pin down. We can survive nearly anything, endure any environment and still triumph. While it is easy to get caught up in despair at our own pettiness, greed and selfishness, once in awhile we get to bask in the glow of our own resilience – the things that make us such an extraordinary species.

Meru is a mountain in Northern India near the headwaters of the sacred Ganges river. At 21,000 feet, it is nearly seven thousand feet less than Everest, but while the more famous mountain attracts thousands of climbers every year, the pinnacle of Meru had never been reached by human beings.

Meru, considered unimpeachable by many, requires two different disciplines to ascend; the first more typical of Himalayan mountaineering, but the second requires a different style. That’s because the final 1,500 feet is up a near vertical glass-smooth rock wall called the shark’s fin because of its distinctive appearance. However that distinctive feature has broken the hearts of climbers for generations.

Conrad Anker is, in the climbing community, a legend. He’s ascended nearly every peak of note that there is to climb. Meru became something of an obsession with him. He put together a crack climbing team – Jimmy Chin, one of the most respected climbers in America and athletic up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. In 2008, he and his cohorts made a daring attempt to scale Meru, but like all the other attempts before it met with defeat. Low on food and with Ozturk suffering from injuries, they had to go back down after making it within 100 meters of the summit.

That kind of near miss gnaws at a man. While Anker sat and stewed, Chin and Ozturk met with some harrowing incidents of their own before the Anker re-convened the men for another attempt a few years later, an assault which had to wait while Ozturk recovered. And the daunting task of climbing the unclimbable mountain loomed in front of them; all three knew that there was a good chance that not only could they fail again, they might not come back at all.

The three climbers brought GoPro cameras with them, among the nearly 200 pounds of gear they had to haul up the mountain themselves (on Everest, Sherpas do the heavy lifting; they won’t climb Meru however). The results are some spectacular scenery; we see the men bivouacking on the sheer rock face in tents lashed to the side of the rock with 19,000 feet of air below them – I couldn’t possibly sleep soundly in a tent like that, could you? Try adding being forced to wait out a storm for four days in such a tent. I can’t imagine it, but thanks to this film you don’t have to.

This isn’t like a Hollywood production; there is no dramatic moments where climbers dangle over crevices or a piton gives way. There is in fact little sound at all. The men are business-like in addressing the climb. In off hours, sure they are bro-tastic – in fact, a lot of climbing terminology creeps into their conversation which is irritating since some of the terms aren’t explained really at all.

The climbers in fact are a lot like surfers in a lot of ways. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes them brothers (and sisters) of the mountain, much like surfers are bros and sisters of the ocean. They have a kind of bravado about them, and a definite appetite for adrenaline although Chin’s mother extracted a promise from him that he wouldn’t die before she did. When she did finally pass, he found himself willing to take more chances than he had previously.

The interviews with the climbers are thoughtfully done for the most part and interspersed with spectacular climbing footage. Meru itself looms as a legitimate presence, brooding and menacing with a stark alien beauty that is both sleek and forbidding. The climbers themselves are fairly flippant about the danger and the will it takes to climb a mountain like Meru; more elegant still is their exhausted eyes and faces as they near the top.

This won the documentary feature audience award at this year’s Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The New Yorker‘s David Edelstein is pushing this film for Oscar consideration and it might well merit it. It’s truly hard to argue with him when you watch this movie, particularly on the big screen with the sound of the wind on a sound system. If ever a film was made for a VR system, this is the one.

This is not one of those movies where you watch someone do something extraordinary and find yourself exclaiming “I want to do that!” Believe me, you won’t want to do this when you watch what these men go through, but they are a singular breed and heaven knows they are certain that all of this is worth it. In all fairness I thought they were unhinged until the very end, when you finally understand why they do what they do. This is absolutely captivating and should be one you seek out first and foremost in a theater where it should be seen, or on VOD or streaming if it doesn’t manage to find a screen near you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Cathartic.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much climbing lingo, bro.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anker is best known to non-climbers as the man who discovered the preserved corpse of the legendary English mountain climber George Mallory on Mt. Everest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Message From Hiroshima

Vertical Limit


If you're just going to hang around, I'm gonna leave.

If you’re just going to hang around, I’m gonna leave.

(2000) Action (Columbia) Chris O’Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, Stuart Wilson, Temuera Morrison, Alexander Siddig, Izabella Scorupco, Ben Mendelsohn, David Hayman, Augie Davis, Roshan Seth, Nicholas Lea, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, Rod Brown, Robert Taylor, Steve Le Marquand, Robert Mammone. Directed by Martin Campbell

Those who climb mountains are a different sort of breed. They risk life and limb, push themselves farther than even they themselves think they can go, for a reward of standing someplace few humans can visit.

For most of us, the mountain peaks of the Himalayas are farther away than the moon; someday, we may be able to take a shuttle to the moon. No matter what future, it will always take a special sort of human being to scale those heights.

Peter, Annie and Boyce Garrett are such human beings. Dedicated climbers, they push themselves up the highest peaks and they do it with joy. However, tragedy intervenes when Peter (O’Donnell) is forced to make an awful decision, one he must revisit later in the movie.

The results of this drive a rift between him and Annie (Tunney). Peter becomes a National Geographic nature photographer, whereas Annie continues climbing, becoming one of the world’s best. She signs onto an expedition funded by billionaire adventurer Elliot Vaughn (Paxton) to scale K2, one of the most fearsome, lethal peaks in existence.

Vaughn had been part of an ill-fated expedition that was caught by the weather just short of the summit, resulting in the loss of the entire team except for him. Vaughn wants to find his personal redemption on the peak, which is never a good thing when going up against K2.

Despite the warnings of veteran climber Montgomery Wick (Glenn), the well-outfitted team ascends and Vaughn promptly shows his true colors, making decisions based on ego and ignoring the expertise of his climbers. Caught by a storm and avalanche, three of his team members (including Annie) are buried in a crevasse.

Peter frantically mounts a rescue mission along with Wick (who has his own reasons for going along) and, among others, Monique (ex-Bond girl Scorupco) who’s in it for the money, Kareem (Siddig) who’s in it to save his cousin, and brothers Cyril (Le Marquand) and Malcolm Beach (Mendelsohn) who are in it as comedy relief.

They are in a race against time, as the survivors will suffer from fatal pulmonary edema (due to the altitude) if not pulled off the mountain in time. Did I forget to mention they are carting unstable nitro bombs to help dig the survivors out? Spectacular stunts and explosions to follow.

The stunts are spectacular, with a helicopter sequence having both Da Queen and I frozen to our seats.  Campbell (Goldeneye) keeps the pacing murderous, as the climbers go from peril to peril. Trying to keep the story as realistic as possible, the filmmakers used a lot of expertise from real climbers to give audiences a sense of being up there (some of the scenes were filmed at the actual K2 base camp).

The problem here is believability. There are a number of rather sizable holes I couldn’t really reconcile. The biggest one is this; after a perilous climb to reach the dying survivors that takes everything the rescue party has and then some, how are they supposed to cart down the crevasse-dwellers who are too sick to even move a leg out of the way of a rock outcropping? Don’t ask me It’s just Hollywood, right? Also, there are too many close calls. It’s almost rote that people wind up dangling in mortal danger of a rather long plummet only to be saved as they slip off the mountain, either by their sheer willpower, or by the intervention of another climber thought to be too far away to be of help. It gets old after a while, guys.

Nonetheless, this is exquisite eye candy, beautifully filmed. If there was an Oscar for best stunt performances (and by golly there should be), Vertical Limit would be a major contendah. As it is, it is disposable entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous vistas of mountain peaks. Some pretty spectacular stunts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly repetitive. Too many holes in logic and too many occasions when believability is stretched beyond the breaking point.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of intense peril as well as occasional bits of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The backdrop for the mountains was Mt. Cook in New Zealand standing in for K2 in Pakistan; this would mark the first time that director Kiwi-born Martin Campbell has filmed in his native country.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: While most behind-the-scenes featurettes are normally little more than puff pieces put together by the publicity department, the one here is actually fascinating, detailing the kind of training the actors went through and the challenges – often potentially life-threatening – the cast and crew faced in making the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.7M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: 47 Ronin

A Lonely Place to Die


 

There's nowhere to go but up.

There’s nowhere to go but up.

(2011) Thriller (IFC) Alec Newman, Ed Speelers, Melissa George, Kate Magowan, Gary Sweeney, Holly Boyd, Douglas Russell, Alan Steele, Sean Harris, Stephen McCole, Karel Roden, Eamonn Walker, Paul Anderson, Eric Barlow, Jamie Edgell, Matthew Zajac, Gillian MacGregor, Tania Chant, Robert J. Goodwin, Alan Wyn Hughes. Directed by Julian Gilbey

Sometimes when you least expect it you find hidden gems where you ought not to. It might have to do with low expectations – you think that the movie is going to be just one of many that when it turns out that it is not you are so pleased that you perhaps give it an inordinate amount of credit. That’s as may be but the truth is those kinds of movies are the sort you appreciate simply because they leave you pleasantly surprised.

Rob (Newman), Ed (Speelers) and Alison (George) are mountain climbing in the Scottish highlands and having a kick-ass time of it. Sure there are a few hairy moments but nothing these young enthusiasts can’t handle. Afterwards, they meet up with married friends (McGowan, Sweeney) in a remote cabin and….well, do things that young active people do.

High winds the next day preclude their plans for climbing so a hike in the woods is called for instead. It is there that Alison and Ed hear a plaintive voice, crying out in a language they don’t understand. After digging, they find Anna (Boyd), a Serbian girl who can’t speak a word of English, buried in a box underground. They pull her out and determine to send their best climbers – Alison and Rob – on ahead to fetch help.

What they don’t understand is that some Really Bad Men put Anna in that hole and they’re not particularly happy that someone has dug her out. They mean to put her back in that hole and to put anyone who gets in between them – or even knows that she exists – in the ground in a more permanent fashion. Really Bad Men are like that.

This is one of those thrillers that doesn’t rely on artifice – or at least a lot of it – to keep its audience on the edge of their seats. This is a smart, beautifully photographed suspense movie that utilizes some beautiful Scottish scenery. There is a real sense of jeopardy that you can’t manufacture without at least a working understanding of the nuances of the situation. Another thing you can’t manufacture is the scenery; there are some breathtaking images here.

Melissa George has developed into a fine actress who is most commonly found in European thrillers and horror flicks. She’s been compared with Jamie Lee Curtis and I think that is pretty apt; she plays smart, strong women who can be a physical presence without losing their feminine side or their sex appeal. Curtis made a career that way and Gina Carano looks to do the same; George already is.

When the movie changes location to a Scottish village it loses a lot of its momentum, as if the filmmakers were more comfortable filming in the wilderness than they were in a more urban environment. That aside, there are some really nice twists and turns, particularly one having to do with the identity of the Really Bad Men that fans of the genre will surely appreciate.

I’m deliberately keeping things fairly vague because the movie works so much better if you don’t see what’s coming. I was fortunate enough to go into seeing this without knowing anything about it and was simply blown away by how sophisticated the movie making was here. You might think from reading the plot summary that this is a very basic “wilderness stalking” movie, but it’s far from that. It’s elevated by some strong performance (particularly from Speelers and George), some gorgeous cinematography and writing that gives its audience credit for having some sophistication and intelligence. While the ending might knock it down a peg or two, this is still a really good gem in the thriller genre.

WHY RENT THIS: A couple of well-put together scenes. Speelers and George are compelling leads. Gorgeous scenery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Final third of the movie doesn’t hold up to first two thirds.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly strong violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Gilbey and his brother Will (who co-wrote the script with Julian) became avid mountain climbers while researching and making the film. The footage over the end credits that was taken with helmet cans was actually shot by the brothers themselves while scouting locations for the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on a $4M production budget; that’s a pretty sizable hit for a movie that’s been pretty much ignored over here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving the Game

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meskada

The Bourne Legacy


 

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner is having to get serious about fighting the women off.

(2012) Action (Universal) Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Shane Jacobson, Michael Papajohn, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by Tony Gilroy

 

We aren’t content to let things just go their own course. We have a habit of meddling, intruding, making changes willy-nilly without first considering the consequences of our actions. This continually gets us into trouble but if you think it’s a catastrophe-maker for you, think of it on an institutional scale; what happens when a government messes up?

Aaron Cross (Renner) is in Alaska on a training evaluation. He is climbing rocks, fighting off wolves, taking blood samples from himself and taking a little blue pill (no, not that one) and a little green pill; the first, as we will find out, improves his mental acuity; the second, his physical.

At last he reaches a remote cabin where a fellow operative (from Project Outcome, as we also later find out – you’re going to find a lot of things out later, trust me) who is known only as Number Three (Isaac) – best not to be known as Number One or Number Two – has been exiled to wait for agents like him and turn in their blood samples for analysis.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the next mission. Aaron hears a strange noise outside the cabin and goes to investigate it. That strange noise turns out to be a U-CAV drone firing a missile that essentially vaporizes the cabin and everything in it, including the little green and blue pills which Aaron is going to need. He escapes the drone by doing a little homemade self-surgery on himself, removing a tracking device and placing it in a hapless wolf (wolf lovers, turn away from this one). He decides to head down to the lower 48 to find out what’s going on.

You see, what is happening is that the Jason Bourne affair has sent the upper echelons of the clandestine government operations – the Division, if you will – into a tizzy and in full panic mode, they enlist retired USAF Black Ops specialist Eric Byer (Norton) to close up shop on Treadstone, Blackbriar and all the related operations – particularly Outcome – and all those who knew what was going on. This involves giving the operatives little yellow pills which cause them to suffer from fatal nosebleeds.

At Sterissyn-Morlanta, which is the essential public face of Outcome, a scientist goes berserk (with a little help from his friends) and shoots everybody in his lab. The only survivor is Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz), who is understandably upset. She gets a lot more upset when a psychologist (Marvel) sent to evaluate her in her Maryland home as she packs for a trip to visit her sister in Canada turns out to be there to terminate her. She is saved by the arrival of Cross who is looking for some pills.

This is bad news for Byer, who thought Cross dead at the cabin. When he discovers Cross has fled with his new friend to Manila, he figures out that Cross is there to get an upgrade which would give him the permanent mental facilities without having to take a pill. He sends in a grim operative from a different project, known only as LARX-3 (Changchien) to clean up the mess. LARX-3 has the same or superior mental and physical skills as Cross and a real dogged determination to see his mission through. Can Shearer and Cross figure out a way to escape from the implacable LARX-3 – not to mention a government with unlimited resources that wants them both dead?

A lot of fans were upset when they heard that the latest Bourne movie would be without Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon in the last three movies of the series, or without director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two. New director Gilroy does have a connection with the series- he wrote all three of the movies, so he’s very familiar with the world of Jason Bourne. That is a double-edged sword though.

To the good, he understands the backstory and grafts this new branch onto the tree seamlessly, in a way that makes sense and isn’t quite as jarring as seeing a brand new face playing James Bond. To the bad, there are many references to programs and projects from the first three films, with bureaucratic characters from them making an appearance in roles that range from little more than cameos to much more meaningful supporting roles. For those unfamiliar with the first three films it can be mighty confusing, although if you simply choose to ignore all of the code names and characters therein you can enjoy the ride of the movie on its own merits.

Renner, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Hawkeye in The Avengers further cements his place as one of the hottest leading men and action heroes of 2012. He’s got lots of charisma and my female friends tell me he’s rather easy on the eyes. Far be it for me to impugn the veracity of my female friends in matters of male hotness. I just know that when I see the guy onscreen he has my full attention.

Weisz is one of my favorite actresses in terms of performance but she is curiously muted here. There isn’t much energy and few sparks generated between her and Renner. I know why she was cast – few actresses appear to be as smart as she is – but she’s unconvincing in the action context and has little to do but look terrified and/or concerned.

The action sequences are as good as any I’ve seen this year, with pieces set in Dr. Shearing’s Maryland home, in the Alaska woods and a parkour and motorcycle chase in Manila all generating plenty of adrenaline. There is an intelligence here as well that is often missing in other action films, although not to the same degree of the first three Bourne movies which caught the essence of the Robert Ludlum books they were based on if not the plot – the sense of wheels within wheels, conspiracies and political game-playing all just under the surface. While there are all of those things here, they simply aren’t to the same level as, say, The Bourne Ultimatum which was the most recent in the series.

I’d say at the end of the day this is a must-see for action fans and adrenaline junkies, although those who don’t like their cerebellum being disturbed might find this headache-inducing. It’s a lot better than I feared it would be, and a good career move for Renner who looks to be a superstar if not already then dang soon.

REASONS TO GO: Renner is a magnetic lead. Action sequences are top-notch. Continuity between this and first three films is well-done.

REASONS TO STAY: Weisz’ character seems a bit bland. May be a bit hard to follow for those not familiar with the previous three films.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action, plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the book is the same of the first novel of the series to be written by Eric von Lustbader (after Ludlum passed away) but has nothing to do with the plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale

U-CAV LOVERS: An assassination attempt is made by unmanned drones who send missiles into the cabin where Cross had been moments earlier.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Hope Springs