Friday, February 1, 2013

REVIEW: The Bourne Legacy

There was never just one.  But because of just one, all of the others had to be silenced. Aaron Cross is one of those others- a chemically-enhanced "Outcome" agent who is now being targeted by the very people that built him into such an effective soldier.

They're going to regret doing such a good job.




[THIS REVIEW DOES CONTAIN MINOR PLOT SPOILERS]

The Worldview

The Good

One of my favorite things about the Bourne films is that they feature damsels in distress and valiant knights coming to their rescue- in a much more modern sense, of course, but with many of the same basic, refreshing ideals.

It seems standard-issue in modern films to see Amazon women fighting alongside- or against- the men (The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol).  The old and chivalrous concept of "women and children first;" the Biblical idea that the men should be the protectors of a society and the defenders of the innocent, the defenseless, the weak and oppressed, these are now rare things to see modeled.  Yet in the face of this cultural tide, the Bourne films have always featured a man who is a great warrior and a woman whom he needs- but who also needs him, particularly as a protector.  






While feminism has certainly not been entirely eradicated, the warrior-woman does not make an appearance in these films.  


(Interesting side note: the Hebrew word for "man" can also be translated "warrior." So in some ways I don't think it's an extra-Biblical stretch to say that a warrior-woman is a man-woman.)


While Legacy did show a female Outcome agent, we did not see her doing any kind of combat.  The woman who poses as a psychiatrist does some fighting, but her role was fitting, because it would have been odd to send an all-male psychiatric evaluation team to a single woman's house.  She wasn't very feminine, but she wasn't held up as a role model.  Interestingly enough, this would be the first Bourne film where the hero consciously takes the life of a woman.  I think Aaron was justified in doing so, but it's worth noting.  


Another thing with regards to this is that Marta actually does a little bit of fighting (if it could be called that) in a non-manly way.  She's not good at it, but she does it when she needs to- namely, she kicks over the motorcycle of an agent trying to pursue them.  I love this- a woman who isn't afraid to use force, but she does it only as a last resort, and even then in a feminine, desperate, self-defense way, not an "I totally dominate you, scum" way.




One of the most interesting lines in the film, from a worldview standpoint, is when Edward Norton's character is justifying his organization to Aaron Cross- who is a part of the organization, accidentally killed innocent people, and now is feeling very guilty.  Norton compares themselves to "sin-eaters," and says that they are "morally indefensible and absolutely necessary."


Why am I listing this in the "The Good" section?  Because Norton is the bad guy.  This pragmatic "for the greater good" garbage comes from the antagonist, but the protagonist doesn't buy it, and we know it, and we love him for it.  Legacy portrays this philosophy as exactly what it is: a lie.





Another thing that I really appreciate about the Bourne films as a general rule- and even more so in this one- is not so much how much good stuff they put in the film as much as how much bad stuff they didn't.  Legacy is one of the best romances I've seen in a long time- and they never kiss once.

Which brings me to the romance between the main character and the woman who is his companion throughout the film.  Like I said, I loved it.  While many films take the "I'm good looking, you're good looking, I got lost in your eyes, now we're in love, now we're committing sin together, and that was just the frst ten minutes" approach, the relationship that we see in Legacy is beautifully real, coming about like true love and deep friendship often does- by going through trials and facing adversity together.  The physical affection- in the form of holding hands!- comes after their relationship has transcended superficial attraction, and not before; indeed, the superficial attraction factor was not even really there, which was also refreshing.  No googly eyes or sleeplessly-hugging-my-pillow-while-looking-dreamily-at-the-stars garbage.  Finally, a relationship between two main characters of the opposite sex that isn't a cookie-cutter cliché!




I also enjoyed how their relationship fell naturally into a Biblical model- the man setting the vision and taking the lead, and the woman coming alongside and helping him to accomplish his goals. Marta was definitely "a helper suitable to" Aaron.  She even obeys him (how often does someone say "don't turn around" in a film and the other person actually doesn't turn around?!?), which is apparently OK if it's some assassin guy that you hardly know, but super-oppressive if it's the husband who has pledged to love and protect you until the day he dies.


The hero, too, isn't a drunkard, womanizer, or anything else along those lines.  He gets angry, he gets sick, he's a little flirtatious on occasion- he's a regular guy who isn't perfect.  But he protects the innocent, he fights injustice.  Legacy gave us a hero who felt flawed and human, but who didn't have to commit egregious and habitual sins to prove it; I would consider Aaron Cross a great example of what a protagonist should be, though, of course, it would have been better if his vision had transcended this world and been set on The Kingdom of Christ.




The Bad

The language was a bummer in this film; though, as with the others, it was not nearly as bad as it could have been, it would have been much better if it wasn't there at all.  It especially irks me when the name of The Lord Jesus is used as an exclamation; this happened more than once.  Marta's swearing grated on me particularly; she is the heroine and is overall a very attractive and likeable woman, but her occasional swearing tarnished that a bit.

Speaking of Marta, early in the film she talks about a man that had been living with her but moved out, and in a matter of moments we have a worldview presented which says that that's normal and OK.  Another real smear on her character which was totally irrelevant to the story.


I've noticed more and more presentation of homosexuality as normative in films lately; it is worth mentioning that Marta says of a coworker "I thought he was gay."  While this did not at all feel like the forced agenda that spills out of many other modern films, it's worth a mention as, if nothing else, an interesting inclusion in the script.


Like I said, Aaron is a little flirtatious in one scene.  


Obviously, the film is violent; I think the violence was, overall, very tastefully done, but for viewers who are disturbed by violence, it's definitely present.  However, there were a few times where Aaron killed people that I don't think he was justified in killing; they did not threaten him with any serious harm, nor did they pose a serious threat, so I would have preferred to see an approach that placed more value on life.




Aaron Cross needs the "chems," chemical supplements which enhance his mental and physical ability and were part of the government program he participated in.  It is unclear from the film exactly what the consequences of going off this medication would be, but the worldview issues remain.  

First, that we should be content with the way that God made us; Aaron, before being enhanced, apparently had a low IQ, but instead of solving that by modifying the body God gave him, perhaps he should join Lumosity.


Second, that the most productive way of bettering ourselves is God's way.  Chemical enhancements (like steroids or drugs) often promise instant results at the expense of long-term heath.  The Bible has a lot to say about how we treat our bodies, so regardless whether Aaron could live without the chems or not, it's important to consider Biblical principles before popping the pill.




Something else that's normal to see in films and in our culture is women in the work force- living alone, working outside the home without the protection and leadership of a husband or father.  It's worth pointing out, not because Legacy is different in this regard from any other modern film, but because it is the same as all the others.  It's a constant cultural message which, if we do not take it captive to the obedience of Christ, will influence our own worldview.


Another thing that happens all the time in movies is that the hero runs off with someone's car, destroys property while getting away, or some other such.  In this case, Aaron pilfers a watch, a motorcycle, an airplane, and is involved in street chases that aren't exactly... casualty-free.  Um- is anybody going to repay these people?




As far as modesty is concerned, there are a few scenes where Aaron is shown shirtless, and Marta wears a spaghetti-strap shirt.  None of these, though, are set in a romantic context- with the exception of the scene with the most intimate interaction between them, which is when Aaron has a very bad fever.  You could call it romantic, but it didn't go beyond anything that two good friends (or a brother and sister) could do in good conscience in that context.




The Art


The Good

Gotta say, I didn't want another Bourne film.  Ultimatum left off amazingly well, and I figured another try would be superfluous and also just really, really bad.


I stand corrected.  The direction Legacy took was unexpected and unique.  The decision to bring in a new lead character was brilliant; an attempt to replace Matt Damon with a different actor playing the same role would have been disastrous.  Bringing Aaron Cross into the story of Jason Bourne, on the other hand, breathed new life into the franchise.


Cross contrasts wonderfully with Bourne.


Bourne is stoic, silent, robotic, with a permanently furrowed forehead and the bewilderment of a lost child buried beneath an exterior hardened by his life and profession.




Cross is talkative (VERY talkative), personable, has a sense of humor and a ready grin.  


(Side note: THANK YOU costume department for being honest with things like facial hair!  Seriously, Jason Bourne is on the run 24/7, but he's always clean-shaven and with his hair gelled in place. Um- wut?)

Even with a new actor and new character, the filmmakers could have tried to just do another Bourne- but they didn't, and that was a very good decision.  The contrast between the two protagonists adds to the believability (and enjoyability) of the story, and while Matt Damon's robotic Jason Bourne was perfect for Bourne, it would have quickly grown boring had it appeared in another protagonist as well.


I have a new favorite actress.  Rachel Wiesz delivers one of the most convincing, genuine performances I think I've ever seen.  From shock to bewilderment to fear to her mischevious smile at the very end of the film, she played her role perfectly.




Speaking of acting, the acting overall in Legacy was stellar.  


Jeremy Renner was excellent as Aaron Cross (I thought he did a far better job in this film than in The Avengers- whether by his fault or that of the people behind the camera, I don't know, but Hawkeye was painful).  He delivered a very believable and likable Aaron, talkative, personable, with human emotions and just a very buyable personality.




Edward Norton made for a formidable antagonist.  Cool under pressure, but without the over-tension that I think haunted previous Bourne characters in his position, quiet but authoritative, he was perfect for this role.




Indeed, I thought the entire government agency side of the film was far and away better than in the previous Bourne films, in which there seemed to me to be an over-tension and "I'm cool"ness about many of the government agents.  Not Norton and his team- they were spot-on, without stone-faced stoicism or over-exaggerated emotions.  Even the minor characters on his team were spot on, down to the slightly overweight, nerdy-looking guy who asks how to get this screen up on the big screen. Perfect.  It's the little inclusions like this which take the government side of the film from cardboard cut-outs to a real and believable group of people.


And then there's this guy.



The scenes featuring Aaron Cross and the other Outcome agent in the cabin were some of my favorite from the film.  The chemistry between these two was amazing, and the scripting was masterful.  In our family, we refer to it as "blue"- the scene was very "blue" in that the two men talked to each other just like men do.  Between the acting and the scripting, it felt so spot-on.  

Indeed, throughout the entire film, on-the-nose dialogue ("I accept your apology, we can be friends now") is avoided masterfully, with emotions being shown instead of spoken.  Very good.

Another excellent inclusion was the scene in which Marta Shearing talks to a co-worker who later commits a serious crime- in just a few moments of very natural, organic dialogue, we get to see that this is a normal guy and not some psycho.

I very much enjoyed director Tony Gilroy's style.  I found Legacy far more artistic and tasteful than the previous three Bourne films; shaky-cam was not forced into the film, while sweeping vistas and other amazing (non-shaky) shots colored the canvas marvelously.  The color, too, was much richer in this one, and overall the film felt warmer, more inviting, and just more filmic.  I haven't said it yet, so I'll say it now- Legacy is my favorite of the four so far.  





I really appreciated the costume design of Rachel Weisz's character.  She looked respectable, feminine, and attractive, but that was all.  No skin-tight leather or gaping necklines distracted from her facial expressions; nor did she look like a supermodel who was for some reason working in a laboratory.  She looked exactly like who she was- a professional woman who had more important things to do in life than worry about her looks- a woman who took care of herself but didn't spend hours in front of the mirror- and she wouldn't seem out of place if I walked past her in Wal-Mart.  I think she (as well as almost everyone in this film- I already mentioned Aaron's beard) was a great example of honest, artistically fitting costume design vs. forced or sensualized costuming.




I loved how the "Jason Bourne" theme was masterfully woven into the score by James Newton Howard at just the right moments- instantly conjuring up three films worth of story in just two notes.  Chillingly well done.  The sound of the music was also excellent- very modern and smooth, providing a rich sonic bed into which the film was set.




The Bad


Overall, I think this film was an excellent work of art, but there are a few bones I have to pick with it.


First, why is Marta's car such a mess in the beginning of the film?  It is only a brief shot, but it's shown as if it is introducing us to a facet of her character.  Yet, for the rest of the film, she seems to me like a very organized, professional person, so that seemed inconsistent to me.




A bigger artistic issue for me was the story, which felt like it ended too quickly.  I guess, technically, the protagonist had achieved his goal, but when the film ended, I wanted more.  Part of that you want- you want the audience to leave the theater begging for the next one.  But this was a little more than that- it had a touch of "that's it?!?" a touch of "well, that was sudden."  I'm not entirely sure how it could have been fixed (although I'll bet the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet would tell me), but I think I would liked to have seen a little more resolution to the other threads of the film, a second climax that dealt with the real antagonist and not just his minions.  As the film ends now, there's no good reason to believe that Aaron and Marta are actually safe for any extended period of time.




And then there was the obligatory Bourne chase scene with the obligatory other-assassin-agent-guy that the hero must fight.  Chase scene: pretty awesome.  Other-assassin-agent-guy: not so much.




Whether it was the actor or the people behind the camera (I'm inclined to think the latter), LARX-03 felt way over-epic.  (Did we really have to do the "epicly-pulling-off-my-aviator-shades" shot?)  Plus, I had no chance to connect with this guy, to identify him- not even any real good reason to be afraid of him.  I think this was part of why the climax of the film was not as satisfying- the bad guy that Aaron defeats isn't the real bad guy.  He was pretty much a throw-in at the end of the film (I mean, the film would have hardly changed if his character was entirely removed).  It felt very forced.  I wanted to see Aaron defeat Edward Norton's character; LARX-03 is just another agent, so while that could make for a good action scene (if woven into the story well) it doesn't make for a very satisfying victory to end the film on.


This isn't the first Bourne film to contain cardboard cut-out assassinesque attackers, but I do think it's the first one to attempt to use one as the catalyst for the film's climax.


The guy who said "look at us... look at what they make you give" from Identity is a great example of a better-developed minor antagonist.




Then there's the music.  There were some things that I really liked about Howard's Legacy score, but some things I didn't care for as much.  I really, really missed the main theme which John Powell used so prominently in the previous three Bourne films.  Whether or not it should have been used in a film featuring a different protagonist, I don't know (they did use the "Jason Bourne" theme), but I didn't think it was adequately replaced in this film.  A theme prominently appeared late in Legacy's score, which felt rather odd, because it hadn't been even hinted at up to that point- at least, not that I noticed just from seeing the film.  I haven't listened to the score.  There were a few points where the score felt like it was trying too hard to be something that it wasn't, especially in the last action scene.  I'm definitely nitpicking, though- overall, I think the score fit the film like a glove and set a great sonic atmosphere for the whole story.


Overall,

I really enjoyed The Bourne Legacy.  It's my favorite of the series, and, indeed, one of my favorite films all-time.  I really enjoyed the relationship between the main characters and the believability of the antagonist and his team, and the film as a whole seemed artistically richer than the previous three, even in spite of a weak (or missing) third act.  If you can get rid of the language, I would definitely recommend doing so; other than that, it's surprisingly clean for a film of its genre, and it's a very fun ride.  I highly recommend it.  

It's definitely one that I'll watch again and again.  4.5/5