Usually when somebody discovers that I review movies, they ask my favorite. My answer hasn't changed in nearly twenty years: The Fisher King. Why? Director Terry Gilliam. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl. Amanda Plummer. Robin Williams. Tom Waits! Opens with Ray Charles, closes with Harry Nilsson! It's a brilliant, pertinent, modern-yet-timeless and peculiarly-moving story -- set in both of the real worlds: inner and outer. For me, the movie is an absolute crackerjack of a litmus test for people's perceptions and intelligence (i.e.: When they blankly say they hate it or "don't understand it," I know I'm talking to a wall). Entertaining, yet useful. And at its heart?
Jeff Bridges is the actor for my generation of moviegoers. Before the Academy finally deigned to acknowledge him with an Oscar for last year's Crazy Heart, we loved him in King Kong (1976), in Starman (1984), in Tucker (1988), in Fearless (1993), and in a couple of modest little art films called The Big Lebowski (1998) and Iron Man (2008). Those are just a few of his standout roles, and he always brings good stuff -- but honestly, we don't go to his movies due to any vast acting range; we go because we love Jeff Bridges.
Presently (domestically, anyway), we're getting a terrific double-shot of Jeff, in Tron: Legacy and True Grit -- a very unlikely sequel and a very unlikely adaptation, respectively.
First off, let's not mince words: I grew up with Tron, and thus Tron: Legacy is immensely welcome, if also -- after twenty-eight years! -- absurdly tardy. Briefly, for the uninitiated, the Tron mini-franchise concerns jilted programmer-and-videogamer genius Kevin Flynn (Bridges), who in the first movie gets zapped into the cyberspace "Game Grid" where he must compete in flashy events involving neon Frisbees and zooming "light cycles," before teaming up with anthropomorphic, heroic and eponymous program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) to defeat the fascistic Emperor and Darth Vader -- oops, the Master Control Program and its secretary of state, Sark (both played by the chilling David Warner). It was revolutionary and cool. There is no shame in liking it.
In the new Tron: Legacy, our world, the Grid and the state of computer effects have significantly and rather sexily evolved (examples: California is now located in British Columbia, and neon Frisbees have become neon Aerobies), but Flynn has gotten stuck in the digital domain for two decades, leaving his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund: more blank than Sam Worthington if that's possible) to grow up, pine, pout, rev Dad's Ducati, style himself like some generic Gap ad, do shirtless and cute-little-dog for the female box-office demographic, and eventually hit the Grid himself, to search for Dad, for bitchin' cyber-gladiatorial contests, and for hands-down-the-hottest-chick-ever (Olivia Wilde, née Cockburn).
And there's the thing: These movies give me stuff I want: from the scintillating visuals to the smart otherworldly metaphors to unabashed male gratification (Sam not only gets Hottest Chick Ever: she's hardwired with improbably-wise-and-noble Dad's personal programming). I know this adolescent ruse going in, so although the dialogue grows corny, the props peculiar (vintage books and roast suckling pig in cyberspace?) and now Tron (which aggressively borrows toys and visuals and even the "Wilhelm scream" from Star Wars, plus stuff from Bond films) is even filching elements from The Matrix (the fetish gear, the cyber-rave chic), a franchise which wouldn't -- couldn't -- exist without the original Tron, nonetheless I dig this sleek, wild, thrilling milieu. It's basically Alice in Wonderland for boys -- or, referencing another Disney property, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land for techies.
With Bridges as guide, now playing four distinct variations (three with impressive CG facelifts: 35-ish real-world Flynn, 35-ish Grid Flynn, Flynn's eternally-35-ish digital avatar CLU -- plus 60-ish cyber-guru Flynn), Tron: Legacy delivers -- for the Bridges fan, for the Tron fan, for the soundtrack fan (I'll take Daft Punk over Philip Glass any day) and for the sci-fi/adventure fan. Out-of-nowhere director Joseph Kosinski (who teases his next movie -- a remake of Disney's The Black Hole -- with a poster on young Sam's wall) does such exciting and captivating overall work with this sequel (from the swooping battles to those clever res-lines on the flashbacks) that I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it immediately when I graduated film school. The concepts and designs of the original Tron find a satisfying evolution here, and newcomers are in for an epic ride.
Such relatability is absolutely not the case for me with True Grit, which I viewed, initially somewhat reluctantly, the night before Tron: Legacy. Here we have beloved Bridges going whole-hog loco (and he's superb: a Dude in decay) -- but I haven't read the book, have only seen snatches of the original movie, I don't like Westerns, I didn't like the Coen brothers' ham-fisted No Country for Old Men (No Movie for Bored Men, I call it), and until now I haven't been capable of looking at Matt Damon without feeling some terrible sense of injustice in the universe.
The happy news is that True Grit (2010) is tight, smart, funny and compelling, revealing co-writers/co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen in fine form, and showcasing Bridges as Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn -- the role for which a one-lunged John Wayne won the Oscar -- and Bridges rises (or is it shambles?) to the occasion. Narratively, I was instantly reminded of Luc Besson's Léon/The Professional, as here we have a salty bounty hunter commissioned by and partnered with a very demanding young girl to avenge a murder in her family. But where teenie Natalie Portman gave Besson's film a plausible vulnerability (and very few laughs), here instead Hailee Steinfeld adopts (presumably at the Coens' insistence) a severe and icy formalism, lacing the film with outrageously arch dialogue and stopping just short of hilarious caricature.
True Grit is a minor (and surely lower-budget) Western in terms of scale and spectacle, and the characters encountered along the sporadically gruesome ride (including Damon as a persnickety Texas Ranger) are much more fun than the half-cocked heavies (Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper) at the end. But the interplay between Bridges ("I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into an adventure with a harpie in trousers, and a nincompoop") and the disarmingly mature Steinfeld ("He is not my friend -- he has abandoned me to a congress of louts") will be fetching plentiful accolades.
Also note that both Tron: Legacy and True Grit reveal today's Bridges as rough-hewn guru ("You're messing with my Zen thing, man!"), grown plump and weary on the frontier (be it Cyberspace or Old West) and aching for some useful mode of self-sacrifice. This theme is blatant in both films. However, like most fantasy films (ironically, isn't a Western essentially a fantasy?), Tron: Legacy will meet with haughty critical derision -- fellow movie geeks posing as manly men don't fool me for a millicycle -- but I advise closer scrutiny of its subtext. Bridges' CG-rendered computer-program character CLU (a.k.a. Codified Likeness Utility and Tron: Legacy's chief baddie) is the key: Although underwritten, I see in insane, villainous CLU the idealism of naive Baby Boomer fantasies gone sour, cynical and tyranical -- enslaving all other programs in desperate pursuit of a false and unattainable perfection, a note which the film boldly makes explicit. But there's a moral obligation here, too: as, after all the cyber-tumbling and CG hijinks, only 60-ish Boomer Bridges, as Flynn -- the Maker of the mess -- is capable of, and responsible for, cleaning it all up after himself. Meanwhile, his spoilt and somewhat spiteful spawn cries to the other unseasoned and self-absorbed light-cyclists: "Hey! We gotta work together! It's the only way!" Indeed. Good luck, Gen-Y.
Both of these films offer the opportunity to catch Bridges at the peak of his craft, and, genres be damned, there's true grit in Tron: Legacy, too. As the Master Control Program says: "End of line."