Review | <i>TRON: Legacy</i>

TRON: Legacy is a franchise film, make no mistake of that. Like each entry in the Harry Potter series, it is best viewed as a continuation. This is no reboot. Some of the rules from the original are rejiggered, but hey, it’s all set in a digital world. Nonetheless, there are a range of flaws that will distract serious viewers from fully enjoying the film.

This movie isn’t for them.

TRON: Legacy is cut from the same circuit boards as its 28 year old predecessor, for better and for worse. If you appreciate TRON in all of its flawed glory, or simply love yourself a good, action-packed, eye candy-filled adventure, Legacy is undoubtedly one of the slickest joyrides you’ll see this year. For any fans of Daft Punk, the movie also qualifies as the best music video they’ve ever made. Here’s hoping for an isolated score track on the eventual DVD/Blu-ray release.

Let’s get to it. Years have passed in the movie’s fictional real world since Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) staged a break-in at ENCOM in their search for evidence to bring against corrupt corporate VP Ed Dillinger. Flynn and Bradley rose to seats of power in the intervening years and built up a company that embraced the highest virtues of real-life software giants Microsoft and Apple. That is until Flynn’s mysterious disappearance in 1989. No one knows where he went or why, but he leaves behind a confused son and a power vacuum at ENCOM, one which is quickly filled by more ambitious, money-hungry types—watch for an unannounced cameo early in the film that is both a nod to TRON’s past and possibly a hint of a villain to come in the previously announced sequel.

Fast-forward to the present day: Kevin’s son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is a grown man now, nearly 30 and yet further from taking on the responsibility of assuming his father’s place at the head of ENCOM than ever. He rides a fast motorcycle – a Ducati, painfully overt product placement informs us – with reckless abandon and stages yearly pranks on the company he has a controlling interest in, seemingly unconcerned that his antics cut into ENCOM’s bottom line. That all changes of course when Kevin’s old chum Alan gets a text from Flynn’s Arcade. Sam investigates, and is subsequently zapped into an updated version of the digital world seen in the first film, where he discovers the truth of what happened to his father.

All of this is fine setup, but it’s the A to B telling of the story that goes horribly wrong. The circumstances surrounding what led Kevin Flynn to disappear are at best convoluted, and they nod heavily to characters and plot points from the first film. This gets to the heart of why TRON: Legacy is for the fans first: those who haven’t seen the original will frankly be lost as they try to figure out some of this new movie’s relationships.

The dialogue and several key performances also take a horribly wrong turn. There’s far too much straight exposition here, the unfortunate necessity of releasing a 28-years-late sequel. A number of character exchanges are clunky to the point of being laughable as well. This is to the point that it’s hard to pinpoint just how much blame stars Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde need to shoulder on their own.

Hedlund is best described as vanilla, a wide-eyed action hero and a likable enough fellow who possesses very little charisma. His character is woefully underwritten; there must be scenes somewhere in the universe that offer more development (right?!), but there’s just no room for them here with all of the overt exposition that’s happening. Wilde carries a similar burden, but where Hedlund’s Sam at least gets some stuff to do, her Quorra is really little more than a plot point/HPOA.

Bridges is both the third and fourth star, playing both Kevin Flynn and CLU, a program of Flynn’s own creation and modeled in his image. Much of the “performance” for the latter is relegated to CG trickery, with a digitally rendered, youthful Bridges spouting lines read by the human actor. The visual effect is convincing enough, though it tends to be off-putting in close-ups as the mouth doesn’t always sync with the words coming out of it.

Bridges-as-Flynn, on the other hand, is a highlight. The hip, rebellious young gamer from the first film has aged into a sort of hippie Jedi. He dresses simply and speaks softly, punctuating nearly every utterance with bohemian slang like “man” and “dig” and “you’re kind of ruining my Zen thing here, man.” He’s The Dude in Digital, and the film is better for it.

Special mention must also be made of two supporting cast members who don’t really get a fair shake. On the one hand is Michael Sheen, playing End of Line club owner Castor. The immensely talented actor is clearly enjoying himself in the role, but the scene that he’s part of is so superfluous that it’s hard to justify its presence in the movie. Then there’s Bruce Boxleitner, reprising his role as Alan Bradley. Boxleitner was also the character TRON in the original film. That character returns here somewhat, but his presence ties directly into some of the more convoluted plot points and he suffers for it.

Director Joe Kosinski is the big question mark. He’s created a visually arresting movie, there’s no doubt of that. And he gets great performances from Bridges and Sheen. Hedlund and Wilde aren’t all there, though some of the fault in that definitely belongs to the script. This is Kosinski’s debut helming a feature, and it’s a big one at that; the pressure must have been immense. TRON: Legacy is a solid, if flawed, first outing for the director. It will be interesting to see how the director and the series evolve together, especially with fresh young faces like Hedlund and Wilde also in the mix.

Then there are the intangibles. Where the first movie offered a compelling vision of the future and the landscape of interactive entertainment at the time, Legacy just sort of looks and feels… the same. Better to look at of course, thanks to the gorgeous visual effects on display. But the futurist elements that were so prevalent in the first movie are simply tacked on here as set dressings, and they no longer feel as new or as fresh.

The picture that’s been painted so far is a grim one, I know. TRON: Legacy isn’t a trainwreck though, not in any way. The action sequences are astounding. Flashes we’ve seen in the trailers are nothing compared to the majesty of each full set piece in motion. Sam’s first encounter with the Games Grid is a high point, as is a good, old-fashioned barroom brawl at End of Line. The climactic showdown feels a little busy at times, but more in the “there’s so much happening that my eyes are melting” sort of way.

Big ups as well to Daft Punk, who score the entire film with their unique flavor of electronic techno-rock. Journey was a perfect fit on the soundtrack for the original TRON and Daft Punk is even more perfect for the world of Legacy. Their much-talked-about cameo appearance is no surprise really; the costumes that the music-making duo wears in concert may as well have come from the TRON: Legacy wardrobe department. In a year that has already seen some outstanding film scores, add one more to the pile. Daft Punk’s work is a highlight throughout, elevating scenes that were otherwise in danger of falling flat to epic heights.

Fanfolk, tech geeks, game geeks, geek geeks and TRON fans – stoners too, let’s not forget the stoners – will walk out of Legacy glassy-eyed and impressed, filled to the bursting with eye candy. Just don’t forget that it’s a sequel. Walking in packing little to no knowledge of the original will only result in confusion. This review touches on a range of negatives and they’re all true, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the movie. For any of its flaws, TRON: Legacy is a kickass good time that fans of the original can regard as an encouraging next step in an enchanting digital universe.

TRON: Legacy arrives in theaters on December 17, 2010.

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