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The Dude does The Duke in the Coens’ True Grit. Illustration by Chloe Cushman/Torontoist.
Can you ever really have enough Jeff Bridges? This week we answer that age old rhetorical question, looking at Bridges channelling John Wayne in True Grit, and the multiple instances of a digitally retouched Bridges in TRON: Legacy. Besides all the Bridges, we also rank David O. Russell’s boxing pic The Fighter.
It’s an odd thing, the Coens remaking True Grit. The thematic trappings of a classic western—where good guys win, bad guys lose, and that’s just about that—seems like strange territory for filmmakers used to grappling with the violent capriciousness of fate (see: The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and especially No Country For Old Men). And to be sure, the Coens’ True Grit is an old-school western, an excuse for the filmmakers and their company of actors to dress up and play cowboys.
Beholden more to Charles Portis’s source novel than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 John Wayne vehicle, True Grit’s a dust-swept stage upon which its stars indulge a little ol’ fashioned acting. It’s nothing if not a showcase for Jeff Bridges, who plays one-eyed federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn (the role which netted The Duke an Oscar) with undue extravagance. Bridges swaggers blotto through the film, slurring like John Wayne with two cheeks full of tobacco, his face a fissured tapestry from which it’s tempting to try to divine the film’s moral portends. Though Bridges’ gratuitous aping falters at times, he’s propped up by Matt Damon, as Texas Ranger La Bouef (pronounced “La Beef”), and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as a precocious teenager who hires Bridges’ Cogburn to avenge her father’s death at the hands of a slow-witted horse thief (Josh Brolin, stealing what little screen time he’s afforded).
Damon and Steinfeld ride confidently into the Coens’ stable of regulars, perfectly apprehending the severe flippancy that has come to define the filmmakers’ sensibility. While True Grit won’t ignite the imagination like the brothers’ previous outing, last year’s A Serious Man, it’s as gripping a yarn as it was in 1969, and just as unambiguous in its ethics. Call it A Country For Old Men.
True Grit opens Wednesday, December 22 in wide release. Click here for showtimes.
At first glance, the rough-edged, against-all-odds form of The Fighter may seem dismally familiar. Mark Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, a Lowell, Massachusetts boxer punching well outside his weight class in a bid to escape the shadow of older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), the “Pride of Lowell”–cum–crack addled goon. It’s the scrappy-kid-makes-good sports movie boilerplate that’s earmarked everything from Rocky (and its five sequels) to Rudy, and Wahlberg’s own pint-sized football hero vehicle Invincible. You’d half-expect director David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, I ♥ Huckabees) to petulantly undermine the film’s potential for predictability, but it’s precisely his adherence to convention that makes The Fighter a contender.
Chugging along the well-traipsed sports flick path, The Fighter is distinguished by its performances. Wahlberg is excellent as a wary sad sack trying to shake free of his cartoonishly dysfunctional family, including a grotesque Greek chorus of seven sisters and step-sisters, each more cosmetically challenged than the last. But the real stand outs are the skillfully twitchy Bale and a consummately grotesque Melissa Leo as Dicky and Micky’s self-absorbed mother-slash-manager. Bale breaks from raspy “I’m Batman” (and “I’m John Connor”) mode, playing an emaciated jester whose performance, by-and-large, hits all its comic and tragic beats with jittery grace. Likewise, Leo’s turn as makeup-smeared, chain-smoking Mother Hen grounds many of The Fighter’s lapses into parody.
Russell’s dutiful loyalty to clichéd sports flick plotting makes The Fighter easily his most orthodox film to date. And also his best.
The Fighter opens Friday, December 17 in wide release. Click here for showtimes.
It’s impossible for TRON: Legacy to meet the expectations set by the 1982 original, a film which redefined the technology of computer graphics, laying the pixelated groundwork for everything from Reboot to Pixar to World of Warcraft. So instead, the sequel sets out to meet the 3D Dolby Digital tech benchmarks established by the films the original made possible. In this respect, TRON: Legacy does not disappoint. It’s a hi-tech, high-gloss, dorky adventure epic showcasing some of the crispest, richest, finest use of 3D effects to date.
Legacy casts Garrett Hedlund as Sam, son of Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, a crackerjack video game developer and software tycoon trapped in a digital domain known as The Grid, following the events of the first film. After being teleported into The Grid (don’t ask how), Sam finds the once utopic cyberspace overrun by the tyrant program CLU, cast in his father’s image (and played by a digitally de-aged Bridges). After locating his aged father (a doughy, goateed Bridges, playing it somewhere between The Dude, Yoda, and Steve Jobs) living literally off The Grid, Sam, his dad, and a foxy biodigital protégé (Olivia Wilde) must trek across the unforgiving virtual terrain to stop CLU from slipping into our imperfect flesh-and-blood world and rebooting it in his own image.
The plot seems little more than the product of some basic algorithm: a computer-generated amalgam of Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons’ “Homer³” segment. And while the special effects whiz and whirr and seamlessly pop off the screen, TRON: Legacy lacks the imagination of the original. The lightcycles may be quicker, and the neon Frisbees deadlier, but it fails to envision a possible future with as much prescience and radical conviction as its predecessor. Instead, Legacy looks backwards.
The most dazzling tricks in its digital grab bag are its digitized ’80s-era Bridges (convincing against the Lite Brite backdrop of The Grid, less so when played in the “real” world) and its ability to repackage Star Wars–style dogfights and cutesy Casablanca references. As an SFX extravaganza, TRON: Legacy is wonderful popcorn fare, but its tapered sci-fi vision will have you waxing nostalgic for the needless convolution of the original.
TRON: Legacy opens Friday, December 17 in wide release. Click here for showtimes.