There was never just one...This week sees "The Bourne Legacy" hit theaters, and it's a little hard to know what to describe it as. After all, it doesn't feature, except tangentially, the character whose name it bears, Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. Instead, it focuses on a new character, Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross, whose adventures overlap with and feature some of the same characters in the previous 'Bourne' films. Is it a sequel? Kind of. Is it a "sidequel," as some have termed it? Yeah, maybe. But given the way it jumps off from the existing 'Bourne' films and heads off into new territory, we think it qualifies as one of the more successful examples of a less-than-illustrious Hollywood concept: the spin-off.
The idea of taking a character who proved popular in another work but wasn't necessarily central to the action and giving them their own film is a fairly logical one, but it's more common in TV (see "Frasier," "Private Practice") than in the movies, in part perhaps because so many of the examples (and there have been several in recent years, often with the comic book movie genre) have been so wretched. But with things looking up a little ("The Bourne Legacy" comes on the heels of "Puss In Boots," which was better than most of the "Shrek" films that spawned it, while Christmas will see Judd Apatow follow some of the supporting characters from "Knocked Up" in "This Is 40") it seemed like a good idea to briefly delve into some of the examples we've had across the last few decades, for better or (mostly) for worse. And you can see how "The Bourne Legacy" fits in when the film opens this Friday, August 10th.
One forgets now that Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) was not, in fact, the central character of the first "Pink Panther" film; a major part, for certain, but mostly a dim-witted foil for the lead, jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven in a role originally intended for Peter Ustinov). But mid-way through shooting, director Blake Edwards realized that Sellers was walking away with scenes more than Niven was stealing jewels. Edwards was, at the time, working on an adaptation of Harry Kurnitz's play "A Shot in the Dark," itself an adaptation of Marcel Archard's French-language play "L'Idiote." Edwards and co-writer William Peter Blatty (who would go on to write the novel "The Exorcist") decided to retool the film to star Sellers' Clouseau. The result is by some distance the greatest of the Clouseau movies, introducing Herbert Lom as long-suffering boss Commissioner Dreyfus and Bert Kwouk as faithful assistant Kato, as Clouseau is called in to solve an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery and fails miserably, partly because he's fallen in love with the most obvious suspect and partly because he's an idiot. Released a mere three months after the original "Pink Panther," it remains the best-plotted and plain funniest of the series, and probably the best-ever example of the spin-off paying off, even if Edwards and Sellers fell out to the extent that they wouldn't work together again until "The Party" four years later. [A-]
Yeah, so the reputation of the spin-off is such that a film as uneven and bloated as "Get Him to the Greek" qualifies as one of the better examples. But the film is the rare one that does surpass its source ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" has its moments, but feels like the most bitter and misogynistic of the Apatow factory films), and has more than enough to recommend. Jonah Hill (playing a different character to his 'Sarah Marshall' cameo) is an aspiring record company employee who's tasked by his boss (an uproariously funny Sean Combs) with looking after fading, relapsing rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, who is reprising his role from Nicholas Stoller's earlier film). This sets off a debaucherous few days for the duo as they try to travel from London to L.A., with stopovers in New York and Vegas. It's as scrappy and hit-and-miss as most B-grade Apatow fare, but there's an anarchistic streak to it that puts other R-rated comedies to shame. And it's stuffed full of some terrific comedic performances, from something as small as T.J. Miller's gutshot hotel clerk to Rose Byrne's scene-stealing cameo as pop star Jackie Q. Best of all is Brand, who expands his earlier performance into something surprisingly vulnerable and touching, giving the film more heart than you'd expect. It was the brief moment when it looked like he could actually become the star that everyone seemed to want him to be. [B-]
Less a spin-off than a vastly inferior remake, "U.S. Marshals" was the belated follow-up to "The Fugitive," the 1993 actioner that, let's not forget, turned out to be a Best Picture nominee. Rather than accusing Harrison Ford of another crime he didn't commit, the film focused on U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Oscar for his last performance) and his team, including Joe Pantoliano and some other guys you don't remember. This time, they're tracking another fugitive who's escaped from a money-shot accident (a plane crash, rather than a train crash -- good variety, guys!), in this case Wesley Snipes, who is again wrongfully accused. But this time, he's a government agent who's been framed up. The film walks through most of the beats of its predecessor, with added and unnecessary international intrigue to mix things up, but it doesn't have the emotional backbone of the original. But it does have a much lamer, more predictable script, while veteran editor Stuart Baird can't give the action the same zip as Andrew Davis did. That said, given some of the other films on this list, it could be a lot worse: Robert Downey Jr. (at the height of his substance abuse troubles) is reasonably good value as a slimy spy, and it's rarely overtly awful. If it was a CBS procedural (which is what it probably should have been), your grandma would probably enjoy it quite a bit. [C-]
"Evan Almighty" (2007)
No one really asked for an "Evan Almighty" film, but after the surprise success of "Bruce Almighty" (a stellar $484 million worldwide) and Jim Carrey's refusal to return for a sequel, Universal just had to do something, no? And so in regular studio fashion, the suits conceived of keeping God as he was (played by Morgan Freeman) and introducing a new human sap, this time played by likable up-and-coming comedian Steve Carell, who'd had something of a breakout, scene-stealing role in the first film that preceded his roles in "Anchorman," "The Office" and "40-Year-Old Virgin." Only this time, "Evan Almighty" upped its stakes and spectacle-like tentpole value by introducing a Noah's Ark story line. It was expensive -- a reported $175 million budget not including promotion and advertising making it the most expensive comedy ever made -- and it didn't work (negative reviews, plus the film stalled at a $173 million worldwide gross). It was nominated for one Razzie Award (Worst Prequel or Sequel) and made many worst-of year-end lists at the end of 2007. "Evan Almighty" became a costly lesson that Hollywood probably hasn't fully learned yet. And while Carell is charming at times, it's cripplingly unfunny for such a summer comedy (the apocalyptic premise being somewhat less fun than the idea of getting God's powers), and it's no surprise that director Tom Shadyac, the man behind monster hits like "The Nutty Professor" and "Liar Liar," has subsequently retreated from Hollywood as a result [D+]