Tom Jolliffe ventures back 20 years to look at the cinematic landscape of 2002…
I come bearing bad news. 2002 was not a couple of years ago. No, it was 20 years ago now. I feel very old now in the wake of such a revelation. Has cinema changed much in those two decades? Looking back there were an array of cinematic offerings, but the big screen was top loaded with plenty of franchise material and IP. Not so different from today then, while an array of high concept films, pot boilers and mid range horrors also mirror much of what is in demand these days too, even if some of these (like pot boilers) have become more popular through streaming than as big cinema event movies.
Lets start with some of the franchise heavy hitters. Are you fed up with Spider-Man? Are the constant releases beginning to make it feel like the character is used up in interchangeable fare? It’s even got to the point that in Tom Holland’s latest outing as Spidey he was joined by the two other actors to portray the character in just two decades (and however many films it has been). However, back in 2002, a key comic book figure was finally given the big screen treatment.
Thanks to the success of Blade and X-Men, it seemed the big screen was open to comic book films following a 1990s of largely indifferent response to comic book fare. Sam Raimi was the man to bring Peter Parker and his web slinging alter-ego to life. Tobey Maguire donned the suit, Kirsten Dunst starred as Mary Jane, and Willem Dafoe stole the movie as the villainous Green Goblin. A vibrant Raimi was perfect choice for a film that kicked off a trilogy with great assurance. Ultimately, Spidey’s success was more significant than anything in paving the way for the MCU.
Whilst Spider-Man was also giving his launching pad, a certain Jason Bourne also kick started a new franchise in The Bourne Identity, a film which help rewrite the action rule book for a time (and for better or worse). As he began, the antithesis of a dying James Bond franchise was plain to see and Pierce Brosnan was bowing out with a whimper in Die Another Day.
In 2002 we also had a number of second instalments in major new franchises. At Hogwarts, Harry Potter was unearthing The Chamber of Secrets. Perhaps one of the weakest in the franchise ultimately, coming a couple of years prior to Alfonso Cuaron injecting a huge dose of style to Potters world in The Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Lord of the Rings became synonymous with Christmas season for a three year run. Peter Jackson’s opus trilogy delivered a beefy middle section famed for it’s revolutionary mo-cap character, Gollum, which essentially put Andy Serkis on the map as the go to guy for accomplished motion capture performances. The Two Towers was as grandiose and epic as you might expect, even if it has middle section-itus (in that there’s not a clear beginning or ending). The Battle of Helm’s Deep proved a relentless and unrelenting centerpiece of action. It also essentially laid the foundations for the modern blockbuster trend of excessively long, CGI heavy set pieces.
Elsewhere, the less said about Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, the better. Sure, The Phantom Menace was bad, but had its highlights, whilst Revenge of the Sith three years later at least nailed some landings. Still, I don’t care how terrible the recent Sequel Trilogy was, the Prequels are not worthy of reappraisal and are still largely unwatchable.
In the action genre, the year was heaving. Aside from aforementioned Bourne and Bond outings, the world was about to get very used to a certain shaven headed, growling British action hero called Jason Statham. In The Transporter, co-directed by Louis Leterrier and Corey Yeun, the Stath hadn’t quite made the sensible decision to just play Brits, here mauling his way through a dreadful American accent in the rare moments he remembered to use it. However, his skills at kicking butt, in an enjoyably silly, action heavy romp, turned The Transporter into a trilogy which even got a reboot and a TV adaptation. The first remains the pick of the bunch, and Statham the only transporter worth watching.
Meanwhile, old action dogs Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were fading into obsolescence with Collateral Damage and D-Tox respectively. Steven Seagal’s short lived big screen comeback, starting with a big Warner picture in Exit Wounds the year prior, ground to a halt with Half Past Dead. Seagal teaming with DMX was deemed a success the year prior, so in a time of rappers turning to film, it made sense to team him with Ja-Rule in Half Past Dead, though Seagal disappears for large swathes of the picture, or looks disinterested. The others gamely try and carry a picture that felt decidedly more like a video premiere than a big screen worthy event.
Elsewhere, Jean-Claude Van Damme hit a career low with Derailed. Wesley Snipes made a forgettable prison boxing film, helmed by Walter Hill called Undisputed, which somehow ended up skewing into one of the most popular DTV franchises ever when Scott Adkins came into the lore as Boyka, and boxing was replaced by MMA. That same year though, Wesley also kicked some major ass in Blade II, which also allowed Guillermo del Toro to dip his toes into comic lore and suitably warm up for forthcoming Hellboy films in the years ahead. Blade II, isn’t quite as engaging all told than the original, but del Toro’s visual dazzle and some great fights make it well worth watching.
Before John Wick made gun-fu look cool, Christian Bale was showing off the Kurt Wimmer brainchild of gun-Kata in the 1984 riff, Equilibrium. In some ways the film is underrated, savaged by critics, and in some ways overrated (beloved by film fans). Truthfully it’s somewhere in the middle, but certainly with a leaning toward being worthy of the cult following it has. The main strengths of the film lie in the cast, headed by Christian Bale and well supported by Sean Bean, Emily Watson and Taye Diggs. The gun-kata stuff is a little daft but Equilibrium, a moderately budgeted action film is blessed with some elevating performances, set pieces and is one of the better Matrix slipstream followers.
Milla Jovovich also starred in Resident Evil, the first of a franchise which would become known for being increasingly ludicrous. It has every stylistic excess and silly creative decision you’d expect from the era, but all told, Resident Evil is kind of fun, and Milla was always a likeable presence in the center of it. Dwayne Johnson also had his first leading role, starring in The Scorpion King a largely forgettable but passably enjoyable spinoff from The Mummy franchise.
World cinema highlights included Jet Li starrer Hero. Zhang Yimou’s all-star Wuxia epic was looking to blaze the world over in the same was as Crouching Tiger had a couple of years prior. Largely, it did and Li is joined by the exceptional Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, as well as Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. The opening gambit in Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy also came out, with Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. It might be the weakest of the trilogy, but it’s still engaging and any film with Donna Bae is worth watching. The pick of the World cinema bunch came from Brazil however, with the epic coming of age slum gangster classic, City of God. Beautiful, enthralling, heart wrenching and disturbing.
Some of the heavy hitting directors were in fine fettle too. Minority Report remains one of the best sci-fi films of this century. It’s a little unfairly forgotten these days but the concept, based on a Philip K Dick story, is great, the action kicks ass and Tom Cruise delivers one of his strongest post-90’s performances. From great physical feats, to raw emotion, and a complex character, Cruise is on top form. It further cemented him as a dare devil action hero, but also gave a timely reminder that he’s a great actor when he’s not doing a straight up star powered ego picture. If that wasn’t enough, Steven Spielberg also had Catch Me if You Can, wildly different, but a fun, breezy, and charming biopic of Frank Abagnale Jr (a young con artist on his many misadventures).
Martin Scorsese also made perhaps his most epically grandiose film to date with Gangs of New York. It started a long running kinship with Leonardo DiCaprio, even if a fresh faced Leo ends up being thoroughly overshadowed by the might of Daniel Day-Lewis, here returning to screens after a short hiatus. Perhaps overlong but still thoroughly enthralling.
By this point, Paul Thomas Anderson had established himself as a visionary voice in cinema and he further cemented that with one of his simpler works, Punch Drunk Love. The film was a lithe 90 minutes of subtly quirky humour and dark ideas, and it was lifted by a surprisingly ranged performance from Adam Sandler and atypically great support from Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
David Fincher pulled back slightly and delivered the simple concept, Panic Room, but with the kind of aplomb that few directors could manage. Sam Mendes followed up the success of American Beauty, with the very excellent gangster film, The Road to Perdition. It’s been a little sadly forgotten in time, but it’s a stellar cast with a last great performance by Paul Newman and a wonderful score from Thomas Newman.
Long before Cillian Murphy was a peaky blinder, he launched himself in Danny Boyle’s DV video shot zombie film 28 Days Later. The grim aesthetics added a raw immediacy and stark tone which made it feel unique, Murphy showed great potential too, with a fine supporting cast including Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston and Brendan Gleeson. The film still holds up very well.
The J-Horror fascination was still high but more so, for a time it was the American remakes that were proving to be a strong market. This essentially began with The Ring, starring Naomi Watts. It remains by far the best of the remakes, even if it isn’t nearly as atmospheric and unsettling as the Japanese original. Cabin Fever launched Eli Roth, Robin Williams had a year of seriousness with One Hour Photo, as well as a thoroughly underrated Christopher Nolan film, Insomnia. Okay, it’s yet another Hollywood remake but the all-star cast had Al Pacino in great form, Hilary Swank and the aforementioned Williams.
Neil Marshall made waves, in Britain especially, thanks to comedic werewolf horror Dog Soldiers. M. Night Shyamalan completed a good run with Signs, which at least until the finale, is great. By this point the twist thing was becoming tiresome with audiences always trying to second guess M. Night’s films.
The year was well stocked with pot boilers and high concept thrillers. Some were surprisingly good, like Changing Lanes or crime thriller, Narc. There were others which were a little on the routine side though such as Murder by Numbers, Swimfan, Enough and High Crimes. They were being greenlit with rampart regularity. Within a few years, many of these types of films slowly went out of fashion, soon replaced by more franchise and comic book movies. There has been a bit of a pot boiler resurgence on the straight to streaming market however in recent times.
Red Dragon was meant to be a big tentpole film and another outing for Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. Though the film has its moments, the lack of an auteur as distinct as Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott or Michael Mann was telling and ranks as one of the weaker Lector films. In the underrated column, Vincenzo Natali’s excellent Philip K Dick/Hitchcock-esque sci-fi thriller, Cypher was a clever, rollicking low budget ride.
Elsewhere there were some engrossingly quirky films from a couple masters of the art. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze teamed with Nicolas Cage to make Adaptation, with Cage playing a fictionalised version of writer Kaufman (and a fictional, more extroverted twin). David Cronenberg, prior to a slight mainstream resurgence with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, made the surreal psychological thriller Spider. It’s lesser known in his CV but intriguing, with great performances by Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson. All told the year had some strong moments, but perhaps suffered generally from that early century lull, lacking in the kind of inspiration, that’s slowly been coming back in the indie world particularly this last 10 years.
What are your favourite films from 2002? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.