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Franchise Players

Two films hope to spearhead sequels aplenty

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In Hollywood lingo, they're called "tent poles," movies that their respective studios hope will prove to be so popular that they can count on producing a whole slew of follow-ups featuring the same popular character or characters. The most obvious example is, of course, the James Bond franchise, which has been going strong for some 40 years now. The Batman series was another example until Joel Schumacher ran it into the ground with the abysmal Batman & Robin (in the face of that critical and commercial windstorm of negativity, Warner Bros. has been valiantly trying to rebuild the series for years now). And currently, The Sum of All Fears has jumpstarted the dormant Jack Ryan espionage thrillers while Spider-Man looks set to become merely the first flick in a steady stream of webspinning yarns.

This summer, two other films hope to turn enough of a profit that their makers can feel secure in the knowledge that fans will clamor to see further adventures in the years to come. The Bourne Identity is based on a 22-year-old novel by the late Robert Ludlum, who went on to pen two more books featuring the same character, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Scooby-Doo, of course, needs no intro, not unless you've somehow managed to avoid the omniscient animated series that's been on the airwaves for several decades. Both films are acceptable enough on their own terms and should reap enough rewards to set in motion second installments, though future chapters will have to be even more memorable for either franchise to have any shot at long-term survival.

With real-life best buddy Ben Affleck off trying to save the world in the current The Sum of All Fears, it's only fitting that Matt Damon would be involved in his own spy game in The Bourne Identity. In an attempt to make the dog-eared espionage genre more palatable to younger audiences, Universal Pictures elected to go with a young director (Doug Liman of Swingers fame) and a youthful star (Damon's Jason Bourne is at least a decade younger than the book's Bourne, who was previously played at a more appropriate age by Richard Chamberlain in a 1988 TV-movie adaptation). Damon's a better actor than Affleck, yet it was easier to accept Affleck as a greenhorn CIA analyst learning the ropes than it is to believe Damon as a seasoned CIA assassin. Nevertheless, Damon brings the proper conviction to his role as an amnesiac who slowly uncovers clues to his identity even as he's being pursued across Europe by various killers working for a slippery government suit (Chris Cooper). With so-so action sequences that often elicit as many giggles as gasps and an impressive supporting cast that largely goes to waste (Clive Owen, the exciting new talent from Croupier and Gosford Park, is criminally underused as one of Bourne's pursuers), The Bourne Identity stands no chance of ranking with the classic espionage epics of yesteryear. At the same time, Damon enjoys a strong rapport with co-star Franka Potente (the Run Lola Run actress plays an innocent passerby who ends up aiding Bourne in his quest), and the constant locale switches (a prerequisite in all thrillers of this nature) helps ensure that the movie's breathless pace never flags.

To simply blast the film version of Scooby-Doo because it's cheesy and redundant would be like criticizing a red pepper because it's hot and spicy. For better or worse, a movie that purports to recapture the spirit of the original cartoon would by necessity have to include all manner of elements sure to draw groans and cringes, and on that count, Scooby-Doo works. Yet while that may hardly sound like a ringing endorsement, it's the film's very awareness of its own kitsch quotient that allows it to qualify as a likable lark. Indeed, there's a certain intelligence at work in the way the movie subtly connects to the cartoon show in which four meddling kids -- Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy -- and their dog spend each episode solving a spooky mystery. Director Raja Gosnell (Big Momma's House) possesses the right sensibility to bring to life the slapdash drive of the cartoon, while the script includes funny toss-offs regarding everything from Velma's sweater to Shaggy's rumored pothead status to that infernal pup Scrappy-Doo. Three spectacularly bad actors -- Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar and Matthew Lillard -- are respectively cast as Fred, Daphne and Shaggy (Velma, long presented as one of the homeliest characters in comicdom, is played by the cute-as-a-button Linda Cardellini), yet while Prinze and Gellar never come to life, Lillard steals the show with his dead-on Shaggy impersonation. Still, a tone that was tolerable in 30-minute chunks on TV grows oppressive within the framework of an 80-minute movie, and the filmmakers' efforts to update the action for modern sensibilities (for starters, there's an endless sequence in which Shaggy and Scooby engage in a flatulence stand-off) will invariably make the movie seem even more dated than the animated series.

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