Review: TRON LEGACY An Improvement Over Original. But...

Review: TRON LEGACY An Improvement

“Tron: Legacy” certainly gives it a go.

Bursting at the seams with crisp graphics and virtual world-building ambition, it’s that rare sequel that actually improves upon the original film.

Opening Friday in 2-D and 3-D theaters everywhere, “Tron: Legacy” has one clear advantage over its ancestor that fellow superior continuations like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Spider-Man 2”didn’t have:

The original “Tron” was pretty wretched.

Sorry, ‘Tronnies.’ Cool effects and a snazzy glowy-blue color scheme do not a good film make. Yet here we are, nearly three decades later, discussing a sequel, for Flynn’s sake.

The end result? “Tron: Legacy” is an at-times impressive techno adventure, thanks to some typically charismatic work by Jeff Bridges and jaw-dropping visual effects. It aims high, trying to make a profound statement about the pitfalls of striving for perfection in an imperfect world. Lofty goals are fine, but not even a liberal sampling of classic cyber sci-fi films and a pulsing soundtrack by Daft Punk can provide the movie the gravitas it seems to be grasping for. At its core, it’s an often-overacted tale of good versus evil, programs vs. users, framed by really cool visual imagery.

For all the talk of the picture’s 3-D look – and that aspect is rather underwhelming, I must say – the characters are strictly 8-bit. They have as much depth as the family under attack in the old coin-op ‘Robotron’ game. There’s no nuance here.

Oscar winner Bridges pulls double duty as Kevin Flynn and his ‘program’ Clu, who has embraced Kevin’s drive to create the perfect world and distorted it into his own fascist vision. As Clu, the actor spits out his words with such villainous glee, it’s a surprise he doesn’t out ‘BWA-HA-HA-HA’ at the end of every sentence. Stunning CGI work actually turns the clock back and allows Clu to look exactly as Bridges did in the original “Tron.” All those close-ups of Bridges’ computer-generated baby face get a bit creepy as the movie advances.

Kevin Flynn looks and sounds like The Dude if he’d dropped acid at a Buddhist retreat. He’s all Biblical, man. In case you miss the religious overtones the script clumsily telegraphs, Kevin is the guy wearing the all-white robe, with flowing locks and scraggly beard, as he meditates on the struggles gripping his virtual world. He’s been trapped inside the ENCOM program for more than 20 years ago, trying to prevent cyber genocide by the program he created.

His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) doesn’t know that. He thinks his dad went to work late one night at the office nearly 20 years ago and simply took off. You know exactly how Sam has been dealing with his abandonment issues the moment you see him speeding on his rich-kid motorcycle. Sam spends his time sabotaging his dad’s old computer software and gaming company – which he still owns a controlling interest in. He’s such a nuisance, he’s on a first-name basis with the local police department.

Bruce Boxleitner, alum from the original film who actually played the title character Tron, is back in a small but key role. As Alan Bradley, Kevin’s old partner, it’s his job to point Sam on the right path to find out what actually happened to his father.

Sam visits his dad’s old hangout, Flynn’s Arcade, and discovers his hidden man-cave through a trap door behind an old Tron coin-op machine. With Journey’s “Separate Ways” blasting through the old jukebox, Sam discovers what his dad had been working on all those nights when he would go back to work at the office.

Almost immediately he finds himself transported to the virtual world. Far from Utopia, it’s like a mashup of “Logan’s Run,” “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” complete with bloodthirsty spectators in three-dimensional arenas.

Clu uses his sadistic cyber-Olympics to keep the rank-and-file happy and as a way to rid his world of imperfection. When he learns Sam, a ‘user’, has infiltrated his world of programs, he drops him right into the lion’s den in hopes of eliminating him.

Clu’s planning an invasion. He’s planning to set his army of virtual soldiers loose in the real world, ‘our world’ on the other side of the console.

How can an actual flesh-and-blood person exist in a computer program, and vice versa? For that matter, how can a real human being be killed inside the Grid, by something that DOESN’T ACTUALLY EXIST?

You’ll give yourself a migraine trying to figure that out. The screenplay by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz doesn’t spend much time trying to explain the what’s and whys of how things actually work in the ENCOM program. The film and the audience would have been better served with at least a cursory explanation of the mechanics of mortality in the Grid.

And ‘suspend your disbelief’ doesn’t apply here. This is science fiction. Explanations of how things work are as much a part of the genre as lasers and cool-looking alien life forms. It didn’t take long for Morpheus to explain the drill in “The Matrix.” In “Tron: Legacy,” to paraphrase Sam’s dad, ‘it’s just radical, man.’

“What am I supposed to do? Survive.”

 

That bit of dialogue comes early in the film, and it just about summed up my feelings at that point. After nearly a half-hour of heavy-handed and overwrought exposition, it seemed as if the filmmakers had forgotten what had been the original movie’s kiss of death: It was criminally boring.

Director Joseph Kosinski must have realized this in the edit room, because this was when “Legacy” powers up with a blazing identity disc battle. The action sequences, especially the show-stopping light cycle race, are the movie’s saving grace. The stunning visual eye candy combined with the pulsing score, propel the story along. The violence is safe and bloodless. While that may earn it the Disney family-friendly seal of approval, it also cuts the movie’s legs out from under it. It’s hard to buy into the life and death stakes if you’re not taking it very seriously.

The acceleration of the story’s pacing helps cover up some of the actors’ shortcomings. As the RAM-powered digital princess Quorra, Olivia Wilde manages to infuse her role with more humanity than Hedlund did with his flesh-and-blood character.

The “Friday Night Lights” star seemed more comfortable with the physical aspects of the role than with simple dialogue exchanges. I’m not quite sure what to think of Michael Sheen’s brief role as a nightclub impresario in the Grid. He looks like he was auditioning for a David Bowie biopic set during the Thin White Duke’s 70s heyday. His onscreen time is brief but memorable.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who wished Boxleitner had been given more to do. His part as Kevin’s old partner, and a veteran of the cyber world, could have been better served as just a nostalgic cameo. And not to get too Spoilery, but the film’s climax set up a Tron appearance perfectly.

Once Kevin enters the picture, Bridges becomes the glue that keeps the picture together. He carries Hedlund through their scenes when they work on their father-son issues. And No actor alive can deliver trite dialogue with the conviction Bridges can. That gift has never served him better than here.

Kosinski shows a real talent for handling action scenes. Doing them in an effects-driven picture like “Tron: Legacy” can’t be easy, but he pulls them off quite nicely. He seemed to bite off more than he could chew in trying to establish the new Tron-verse. There could be a drinking game associated with spotting all the allusions and swipes to previous examples from the genre (‘Escape From New York?’ Shot!)

I’d save the cash and skip the 3-D version, by the way. If ever a movie called for ‘in your face’ 3-D trickeration, it’s a movie with Light cycles and flying discs. Yet, the screening I saw in IMAX 3-D was devoid of any truly astounding three-dimensional moments.

Of all the impressive set pieces in the movie, including an aerial dogfight that has to be seen to believed, I imagine the light cycle scene will be the big payoff for the cadre of Tron loyalists. They have fought the good fight for nearly three decades, and now finally get to see the Tron universe updated with modern technology.

In many ways, “Tron: Legacy” is a modern movie miracle.

It’s the answer to the prayers of a small but apparently influential cadre of followers who just had to have one more trip to Flynn’s Arcade. Disney didn’t just green light a modest little picture.

It dropped a nine-figure budget in the hands of a first-time feature director, and laid out ambitious plans to turn the property into a multimedia franchise. It made three trips to San Diego to promote the movie at Comic Con. All this to extend the lifespan of a movie whose most memorable contribution to pop culture, besides groundbreaking special effects, was a kick-ass video game.

To some, that’s enough to call “Tron: Legacy” an unqualified success. But for all its impressive audio/visual imagery, the film ultimately lacks the structure and complexity to support the ambition of the story. It’s all broad (key) strokes and basic archetypes.

With art, the genius is in the details.

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