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by Todd Gilchrist
August 10, 2012 9:11 AM
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Critic's Notebook: Why 'Bourne Legacy' Isn't As Mature As It Thinks -- And What You Should See Instead

Jeremy Renner in 'The Bourne Legacy.'

There's a big difference between complex and confusing, but "The Bourne Legacy" confuses the latter for the former. Writer-director Tony Gilroy turns the original trilogy's intricate labyrinth of agencies, conspiracies and identity crises into a miasma of mythology-betraying mysteries built around an increasingly meaningless series of buzzword-fortified revelations. Nevertheless a well-intentioned if wholly desperate attempt to extend the life of Universal's successful series of "Bourne" films, "The Bourne Legacy" mostly succeeds at making so-called "adult" entertainment seem as dumb, pointless and needlessly complicated as the teen-oriented fare it purports to look down upon.
The plot of "Legacy" unfolds concurrent with the events of the first three "Bourne" films, whose own plot intricacies are too complicated to be described here -- although at least they make sense, and they aren’t repetitive. Here, Outcome operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) discovers that he has been targeted for assassination after his superiors decide to scrap the program, including not just field agents but anyone who contributed or worked on it. When Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) survives a seemingly inexplicable killing rampage at the medical facility where she once administered treatment to Outcome operatives, Cross tracks her down in order to obtain more of the medication he takes to maintain his heightened abilities.
Unfortunately, Shearing doesn’t have what he needs, and without it, his abilities will precipitously degenerate. But when she informs him that she can administer a virus that may permanently rid him of the need to take medication, the duo makes a dangerous journey to the Philippines, even as Cross’ superior Eric Byer (Edward Norton) dispatches a team to eliminate both of them at any cost.

For audiences to accept this copy/imitation/knock-off of the thing they already poured their money into a few years prior, the filmmakers must maintain a delicate balance between novelty and homage.

So it's a familiar scenario. Lest audiences and especially critics forget, moviemaking is a business at least as much as it’s an art, and the studios have an understandable interest in keeping their coffers filled no matter how much acclaim their films receive come Oscar season. For example, although Universal competitor Warner Bros. has maintained some of the most consistent and fruitful director-studio relationships in film history, including longstanding partnerships with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood, it’s also the same distribution house scrambling to cement "Man of Steel" as its next great superhero series, and expanding "The Hobbit" from two films to three.
To relaunch a new iteration of "Bourne" isn’t just an idea ripe with artistic potential, especially with series writer Tony Gilroy at the helm; it’s literally good business. It’s also the sort of model that smaller production houses are using to build empires. Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony have all launched premiere direct-to-DVD labels which exist to produce the same kind of grindhouse fare that folks like Roger Corman and American International Pictures churned out in the 1960s and ‘70s. New Line’s "Undisputed III," the third installment in a series whose original is all but completely forgotten, received raves after it played at Actionfest in 2011. And Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren continue to breathe life into the "Universal Soldier" series, which flourishes on home video and quite frankly offers fans a great opportunity to see how much the two action stars have grown as actors.
But for audiences to accept this copy/imitation/knock-off of the thing they already poured their money into a few years prior, the filmmakers must maintain a delicate balance between novelty and homage. For example, although I like "The Matrix Reloaded" precisely because it offers a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo neatly wrapped in some totally freaking awesome action set pieces, there are others who think it’s too similar to the original "Matrix." And while I’m not a huge fan of the two sequels to "Infernal Affairs," it’s easy to admire the dexterity with which the filmmakers figure out a way to revisit a story with a clear beginning, middle and end and offer engaging adventure for characters and events whose outcomes we’ve already seen.
Unfortunately, the script for "The Bourne Legacy" feels less like a methodical relaunch or re-direction of the mythology of this hugely successful franchise than a series of ham-fisted excuses for why the main character is nothing like his predecessor.


  • Nightmare | August 10, 2012 10:16 AMReply

    It was pretty awesome to me!! But I do understand the flaws in the script. The actors were great in the movie, but the blame goes to the director/writer. In the end, it depends on how the person enjoyed the movie.

  • Katalin | August 10, 2012 10:06 AMReply

    Rachel Weisz not only manages make Jeremy Renner look good in this film (And he's bore as the lead) but manages to give the film's only real and effective performance. With out her efforts to be better than the bad material and the thin character she plays, "The Bourne legacy" would have been literally unwatchable.

  • Christopher Campbell | August 10, 2012 9:40 AMReply

    As I said before, I think you totally missed what was going on in this movie while you were "bored," a criticism by the way that I find extremely boring. People are bored with every film on the Sight & Sound 50, so that's just a lazy way of saying you weren't willing to or interested in engaging yourself in the work. That's fine; action movies should be entertainment. Still, I was also entertained.

    I also think it's lazy to look at sequels and Hollywood's desire to stretch franchises and properties out like this as entirely despicable. Many smart and talented filmmakers manage to do great things even if the studio is only concerned with profits, and Tony Gilroy finds very fresh and interesting and intelligent things to do with the spin-off that I do not consider repetitive nor rehash.

    Anyway, I'm sure you'd like me to go on, but I have other things to do than explain or critique films to people for free. Ask IW to bring Spout back and I'll analyze the whole thing.

  • Christopher Campbell | August 10, 2012 2:03 PM

    I don't consider your review lazy, just that one particular criticism. I think you are a very hard working critic. You even manage to stretch out some reviews to multiple outlets, which I don't see as being any different from what Hollywood does with its franchises if you all have enough to say (and of course you do, as does Gilroy). But being bored by something neither makes it bad nor is it proper for film analysis if that's what this is (I don't think it is, since you don't go into details; this is a review). And since you had three pages worth of material, obviously the film didn't bore you. If it had genuinely bored you, you wouldn't have anything to say about it. I respect that you have an opinion of the movie, but I don't think you need to act like your opinion and response will carry over to everyone. Many people will just as easily be bored by The Raid and Sleepless Night. And find their characters hard to sympathize with and find them to be pointless stories. And sorry, but while I can comment on your review I can not offer my own adequate review, critique or analysis of a movie that I don't find boring or to be anything close to an afterthought in a comment section for free. Besides, it would be pointless. I'm not going to get you to reconsider your point of view.

  • Todd Gilchrist | August 10, 2012 12:49 PM

    Three pages of analysis and not only am I lazy, but all you took away from this is "I was bored." And thanks for reminding me you have other things to do -- otherwise I might understand what it is that you responded to in the film, and even possibly reconsider my point of view.

  • kitcon | August 10, 2012 9:38 AMReply

    Agree. I didn't feel any reason to root for a super-agent pill junkie desperate for his next fix. A simple connection with Jason would have sufficed instead of regurgitating so many scenes from Ultimatum. The climactic chase through Manila also dragged on with too many of the same shots of them weaving through traffic. Really poor script.