Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: When franchises replace their lead character

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Jeremy Renner, as Aaron Cross in 'The Bourne Legacy'. Photo / AP
Jeremy Renner, as Aaron Cross in 'The Bourne Legacy'. Photo / AP

This week sees the NZ release of The Bourne Legacy, an inevitable attempt to further the lucrative Bourne franchise beyond the character of Jason Bourne, whose portrayer Matt Damon declined to return again after three successful instalments.

The new lead character, Aaron Cross, is played by rising actor Jeremy Renner (The Avengers; Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol), and appears to fulfil more or less the exact same narrative function as Jason Bourne.

Keeping a popular franchise going with a new (but familiar) lead character played by a new actor is a concept that gets bandied about a lot in speculative Hollywood circles, but it's rarer to see a film series actually follow through with it.

Modern filmgoers are no doubt somewhat hardened to the narrative hoops big studios are willing to jump through to keep a cash cow giving milk, but this year has seen a couple of particularly blatant examples.

Sustaining a movie series with a new character set in an established universe is different to a complete re-boot (ala The Amazing Spider-Man), but it's only marginally less shameless.

The full trailer for The Bourne Legacy hammers the audience over the head trying to make clear the connection between this film and the previous three, as if it weren't already entirely obvious from the title.

Dialogue snippets from the trailer include "Jason Bourne was the tip of the iceberg!" and "You think Jason Bourne was the whole story? There's a lot more going on here!".

OKAY! We get it! It's just like other Bourne films, except a little bit different.

Whenever this kind of shift occurs in a film series, I recall with fondness the time when The Dukes of Hazzard stars John Schneider (Bo) and Tom Wopat (Luke) went on strike over a contract dispute, and were replaced for one season by lookalike cousins Coy and Vance, played by two new actors.

Indeed, replacing a lead character with another that bears more than a passing resemblance to his or her predecessor happens all the time in TV, where the economics of sustaining an established universe are much more compelling. It also permeates the classy world of straight-to-DVD sequels, where the goal is do as good a job as possible of resembling a more expensive forebear.

But the thinking invades cinema on occasion too. When Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in 2008, there was much talk of Shia LaBeouf's character Mutt taking over the series from an ageing Harrison Ford. The horrified reaction to this notion seems to have quelled any further discussions.

There were similar notions mooted about Brandt, the character in last year's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, played by Jeremy Renner. But he can't be the lead in both the Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, can he?

Jason Patric didn't do his career any favours when he took over for Keanu Reeves in 1997's Speed 2: Cruise Control, which decided that Sandra Bullock's Annie was actually the main character from the first film and simply partnered her with another generic cop character for the sequel.

After crassly slapping together unused footage of the late Peter Sellars for 1982's The Trail of the Pink Panther (the seventh Pink Panther film), director Blake Edwards attempted to reinvigorate the franchise the following year by placing a new bumbling detective (played by Blossom's dad!) at the centre of an eighth Panther movie - The Curse of the Pink Panther - which featured the same supporting cast as previous entries.

Its critical and commercial failure did not stop Edwards from attempting the EXACT SAME THING a decade later with 1993's The Son of the Pink Panther, which starred Italian manchild Roberto Benigni four years before he won an Oscar for Life Is Beautiful.

Maintaining the Oscar-winning thread, before double-winner Hilary Swank broke out with 1999's Boys Don't Cry, she took on the legacy of Ralph Macchio by co-starring with Pat Morita in 1994's The Next Karate Kid, which attempted to breath new life into the popular trilogy. The 2010 Karate Kid remake was much more successful.

After Vin Diesel opted out of starring in the sequel to his break-out hit The Fast and the Furious, the sequel paired co-lead Paul Walker up with another rough-n-ready sidekick, played this time by Tyrese Gibson.

When Diesel's non-Fast & Furious career failed to take off, he returned for a cameo at the end of the third film in the series, which now featured an all-new lead in the form of Lucas Black. Part four represented a franchise cast reunion, while the rest of the various supporting players (except Black) got to participate in part five, which was actually set before part three.

Those Fast & Furious films sure do have a complex mythology.

* Can you think of any other film series that have sustained themselves with new actors playing new (but familiar) characters in an established universe? Do you like in when this happens? Or does it irk you? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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