What’s In A Name?

A boring title can sink a film – a dull albatross round the neck that reeks of self-consciousness and lack of faith.  A boring title says nothing so much as ‘we have no ideas, but we don’t much care.’

Who is Aaron Cross?  An angry bystander name of Aaron?  A vengeful priest?   What if nominative determinism doesn’t apply?  Did you care to find out?  Universal didn’t risk an estimated $125m on that question and instead called their film The Bourne Legacy.

Who is Alex Cross?  Do you know?  Do you care to find out?  The tagline for the film says “Don’t Ever Cross Alex Cross”.   Do you still care to find out?

Well roughly $35m has been bet on you wanting to find out.  Did you know that the character has appeared in two previous films?  Morgan Freeman played him in 1997’s Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider (2001).  This time round it’s Tyler Perry in the now eponymous role.

What about Jack Reacher?  Or Jack Ryan?

Or John Carter (although he deserves a post all of his own).

The Bourne Legacy had a vested interest in maintaining links with the previous trilogy, a byword for quality actioner.  The film poster utilised an eye-catching, if mildly disingenuous, shuttering technique that slightly obscured star Jeremy Renner’s face.  At a casual glance you’d be forgiven for assuming it was Matt Damon again.

Alex Cross and Jack Ryan, however, represent reboots of pre-existing characters, clean slates.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan first appeared onscreen in The Hunt For Red October (1990), in which he was played by Alec Baldwin as a slightly gawky CIA analyst.  Ryan has since been portrayed by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear And Present Danger (1994) as a more straightforward action-oriented character.  Then there was The Sum Of All Fears (2002), in which Ben Affleck did for Jack Ryan what George Clooney did for Batman.

Certainly in Ryan’s case there seems to be some desire on the part of the film-makers to delineate between Chris Pine’s portrayal and previous ones.  The question is whether the name Jack Ryan means enough to people to convince them to hand over their hard-earneds at the mulitplex.  And given the wildly different portrayals of the character, I’m yet to be convinced that the requisite brand recognition exists.

Jack Reacher, on the other hand, is making his debut, based on the book One Shot.  The suspicion here is that the film-makers are making pointed overtures to the existing fanbase – Lee Childs’ creation has starred in 17 books to date.  In theory this should satisfy early box-office requirements, with the crucial word of mouth effect picking up the slack and carrying the film triumphantly into the black.

It’s a fairly high-risk strategy given that the rough and ready, 6”5’ Reacher – a male fantasy figure par excellence – is being played by Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise is a fantastic talent, but Reacher fans have been notable by their dismay at the casting.  Qualms about the relative ages and heights of character and actor have been particularly prevalent.  This seems unfair, given that Reacher’s age is broadly immaterial – it’s enough that he’s experienced, even a little grizzled.  Likewise, his physical size is a device designed to imply his formidable nature – ‘an unstoppable force’ as Childs describes him, which wouldn’t be a bad description of Cruise himself.

The books themselves are reasonably high quality pulpy thrillers, Childs using punchy sentences and dropping otherwise necessary words like ‘the’ to up the pace and instil a sense of immediacy on proceedings.

Height aside, Tom Cruise would seem a good fit for the role – high octane, apparently indestructible with near boundless energy.  Nevertheless, his appears to have been a controversial choice.

The other criticism, however, is possibly insurmountable.  Jack Reacher is hardly Cruise’s first franchise, and from the trailer his Reacher seems indistinguishable from that Mission: Impossible fella, if a little more low-tech.

The risk then is that Tom Cruise may alienate the existing fanbase, while the name Jack Reacher will mean nothing to most people, who’ll assume it’s just another Cruise thriller – he runs around doing his own stunts, things explode, at one point he cracks out his blinding grin, the audience try to stifle their yawns.

Action-thrillers battle it out in a highly competitive market; the one link between all of these characters (John Carter included) is that they have deliberately bland names that give nothing away, especially not their careers or skill set.

And to be fair, when was the last time you met someone called Action McSoldiersson?

Trailers these days tend to give away too much plot and occasionally render actually watching the film in question a redundant exercise.  For these lads, however, an over-sharing cinematic come-on might be their only hope.  Otherwise these films might suffer at the box office, might well be ignored by virtue of ignorance.

James Bond was famously chosen because it was the most unobtrusive and unmemorable name Ian Fleming could dream up.  Today it’s one of the more recognisable monikers out there.  The suspicion lingers that someone somewhere has badly overestimated the affection and notoriety of Jacks Ryan and Reacher and Alex (not Aaron) Cross.

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7 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. “Then there was The Sum Of All Fears (2002), in which Ben Affleck did for Jack Ryan what George Clooney did for Batman.”
    I think this is an apt analogy.
    Many action heroes tend to be interchangeable in a search for more dollars at the box office.

  2. I laughed out loud at “Action McSoldiersson”! I also find myself groaning in dismay when I hear that Tom Cruise has another movie coming out. He has done some great stuff, but I’m getting tired of him and his huge (now kind of maniacal) grin. Love your writing!

    1. Mega talent – top. gun. actor.

      But yes, enough of the one man action roles, Tommy, give it a rest for a while. And please, do another film with PT Anderson because you were astonishing in Magnolia.

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