Spider-man 3 lacked a quality screenplay because they dropped some of the screenwriters and the director largely wrote the screenplay himself. While Sam Raimi is a tremendous director, he was found lacking when it came to a cohesive story. What, you ask, does this have to do with The Bourne Legacy?
One of the reasons (besides Matt Damon, of course) the first three Bourne films are stellar is that the franchise boasts one of the most cohesive trilogies in terms of narrative. I assume this owes largely to the retention of Tony Gilroy as writer on all three screenplays. However, The Bourne Legacy pulls a “reverse Raimi” as Gilroy writes the screenplay and steps in to the director’s chair… and I fear the new film suffers for it. His direction mires the film instead of producing the tension-fraught story Bourne films are renowned for. It’s an odd, behind-the-scenes depiction of 1 Corinthians 12, which stresses that every part of a metaphorical “body” needs the other parts to work properly, that we all have different gifts and strengths. Raimi’s film needed better screenwriting, this film needed tighter direction.
“…all the members of the body, though many, are one body… God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”
When it felt like all the setup had been accomplished and the film really started rolling, I looked at my watch (something I rarely do): 90 minutes in, and 30 minutes left. If your movie is four hours long this might work, but this was allegedly a Bourne film, not Lord of the Rings. With the Bourne title attached certain expectations are natural, and this much slower, plodding study of government cover up and political intrigue might have worked better if disassociated from Ludlum’s series and director Paul Greengrass’ frenetic motion. (It’s notable that Gilroy directed Michael Clayton – the pace better reflects that film with a few inserted action sequences.) The story spends so much time trying to prove how inextricably tied it is to the previous entries, it feels like an epilogue and prologue sandwiched together in molasses rather than a true story in its own right.
Then there are the characters…
The only reason I liked Aaron Cross at all is because I like actor Jeremy Renner, who has proven himself in both smart films like The Hurt Locker and blockbusters like The Avengers and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Despite an intriguing manner and diligence to this new role, however, it’s simply an impossible mission: Cross simply isn’t compelling. Gilroy either leaves him too enigmatic, or frankly hasn’t given us a protagonist worth caring about.
I totally understand they couldn’t copy the character and motivation of Jason Bourne, but there’s nothing redemptive about Aaron. The endlessly fascinating thing about Bourne was how he’d gone from killer to convert – a life radically transformed – a man who went back to family members of those he killed and apologized, who fought to save others from the corrupt. Although his fights and chases obviously caused tragic collateral damage, Jason intentions were usually to incapacitate, not kill, local authorities and those not directly responsible. The story is one of self-discovery and new direction, and the viewer is brought along for the ride.
Aaron has no character arc save mere survival: his motivations for joining the project, his motivations for leaving, his motivations for protecting Doctor Marta Shearing, and his motivations to get more blue pills are all self-professed to be self-serving. He also breaks the neck of a rent-a-cop as easily as an assassin. The only cross he has to bear is his last name. Worse, although his reluctant companion does register a look of concern about his actions a few times, Doctor Marta Shearing never decries them. I suppose his methods serves her purposes of survival too? She never really apologizes for her complicity in the project, simply claiming ignorance as her excuse.
When you think about it, the shady government agents want to survive too. They embark on a massive endeavor that includes shredding papers, lying before Congress, killing operatives and scrubbing important missions to cover their own asses: to survive. They want to survive, they want their careers and livelihood to survive. As I watched all these characters I found myself asking if there was any of them better than any other.
Although put off by pacing, with my final rating an underwhelmed “meh”, perhaps there was something to learn from the film.Aaron Cross is the “protagonist” only because it seems the general tone of the movie and its narrative expects me to think him thusly. Actually, it seems everyone in the film is just scrabbling for what they can get. The new Bourne film seems to reflect a subjective refrain that appears in the Book of Judges:
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Indeed, everyone seems to be lost in the chaos of the movie, engaged in variant forms of CYA whether it is their reputation or their IQ, their livelihood or their lives. They’re doing what is right in their own eyes, to their own best interest, no matter who gets in the way. None of this ingratiates me to the filmmaking or the story: it just leaves me feeling fairly indifferent.
Lest anyone think I’m being overly harsh on Tony Gilroy, let me be clear that his work on the three previous films represents a tremendous accomplishment that should not be forgotten. It should be applauded. But when I watch the previous trilogy, and see the message inherent, I see a VERY different worldview… which makes it hard to believe that this is really The Bourne Legacy.