Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2012

The Bourne Legacy

Re-treadstone

'The Bourne Legacy' is tedious, undercooked and inconsequential

The Bourne Legacy
Universal Pictures
Director: Tony Gilroy
Screenplay: Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Donna Murphy and Zeljko Ivanek
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 15 minutes
Opened August 10, 2012
(out of four)

The Bourne Legacy is a glorified television episode without the benefit of the other episodes in the series. By which I mean it is built entirely around a situation, rather than a story. In a television series this isn't a problem - situation episodes are simple, narrative intermediaries nestled in between the more substantial entries, the latter being those where previously introduced ideas are explored, built upon and/or resolved.

There are plenty of good situation movies, too. Try United 93, for instance (pretty great one, too). Or something along the lines of Phone Booth. But at least those examples were self-contained enough that they never felt like anything was missing. We aren't so lucky with Legacy, which by its [abrupt] end feels like half a movie. Technically, this is a continuation of (or offshoot from) an existing narrative, but its predecessors - Bournes Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum - were all full-bodied films in their own right. This one, not so much. Its jumping-off point is the final remnants of a previous story, and the rest is one long chase scene, and then the chase is over, and that's it. It's one of those movies where a lot happens but very little is accomplished.

There's a lingering sense of incompleteness when all is said and done. A typical film will get from point A to point B. Legacy gets from point A1 to point A2. Point B is still a long ways away. What we get is not unlike a passable episode of 24 or Human Target or Prison Break, its action and chase sequences intercut with behind-the-scenes conference-room drama. But the film can't stand on its own.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy - who penned various drafts of the original Bourne trilogy before taking over directing duties this time around - tries to construct a complex narrative apparatus around the central chase scenario, but winds up mostly paying lip service to his own ideas. We know, from Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass' original trilogy, all about Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar. Legacy introduces, in vague terms, Operation Outcome, which if I'm not mistaken is a more advanced version of the other programs.

When the film opens, Bourne (off-screen, of course) is exposing the dirty doings of the aforementioned black-ops programs, pushing every government higher-up with even tertiary knowledge of the operations into something of a frenzy. Chief among those with a lot to lose is Eric Byer (Edward Norton), who seems to have ultimate authority over the fate of the Outcome program, and decides to eliminate it - and all evidence of its existence, agents and all.

Aaron Cross (the franchise's new leading man, Jeremy Renner) is one such Outcome agent - No. 5. He's on a training mission somewhere in Alaska when the order comes down and manages to narrowly (first through sheer luck, then through sheer derring-do) (I've always wanted to use "derring-do" in a sentence) avoid termination. In a development that requires a staggering logical leap of faith, Cross serendipitously shows up at the home of the one remaining scientist (Rachel Weisz) tied to Outcome, rescues her from certain murder, and the two spend the rest of the film on the run.

So the setup is what it is. Fine. What bothered me most was how much it didn't do with its ideas. Outcome agents are reliant on "chems" (what we would call "pills") to retain their chemically engineered abilities. Cross is nearly out of chems and - like anybody else with a drug habit - needs his fix. That's his primary objective for the duration of these 135 minutes - getting some more chems. That, and staying alive. (But mostly the chems.)

The trouble here is that Gilroy doesn't recognize what is most interesting about his premise. He establishes a Superman II scenario, wherein Cross runs the risk of losing his superpowers - from his physical skills to his dramatically enhanced brainpower - and uses it as nothing more than a meaningless theoretical obstacle. He even adds in the possibility of Outcome agents "viraling out," a process that conveniently makes all the biological changes permanent and removes chems from the equation altogether.

That superficial treatment of ideas is something of a trend throughout Legacy. Earlier in the film, one of the scientists at the government lab where Outcome agents are tested and treated goes on a shooting spree at the lab, and it's hinted that he - not an Outcome agent at all, but simply a technician - was being controlled in some way as well. That something "went off" and he was brainwashed into killing everyone. This idea, too, is all but discarded. In fact, the whole movie is made up of little droppings of information that Gilroy never takes the time to inspect. It's actually a rather smartly constructed screenplay, in that it gives us the illusion of sense without actually having to make any.

It also doesn't bother too much with character (an area the Matt Damon-starring originals mastered so well). Renner probably deserves more credit for the performance than he's gotten, if only because Aaron Cross is such a non-entity as a character. We have to rely almost entirely on Renner (the inquisitive way he looks at things, his cautious body language) to get any sense of what this guy's all about.

In any case, having such an undercooked lead doesn't give the movie much to do outside the nitty-gritty of the chase itself, which hits its visceral peak in a pair of extended action sequences - sequences that go back and forth from thrilling to frustratingly cobbled-together. I found myself excited by some of the angles and techniques Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit came up with to view moments of action, but often agitated by the way they were edited together. The film also makes the fatal error of mistaking a flurry of action for dramatic closure. My eyebrows rose when the familiar end-of-Bourne-movie theme music started playing, assuming what I'd just seen was simply a setup for the third act - not the climax itself. I mean, I guess it's an ending, but it feels a lot more like a middle.

Alas, that was it - a fittingly limp conclusion to a film that hardly has anywhere to go but takes a whole lot of time and effort getting there.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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