Things I Learned From… The Bourne Legacy

Ah, franchises. Tricky business. Get them right, and you’re rolling in money; get them wrong, and you’re a laughing stock. But like it or not, they’ve been the lifeblood of Hollywood for thirty or forty years, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. So we all need to learn how to get to grips with them.

One of the skills we’re going to need is the ability to effectively reboot or revitalize a franchise that’s lost a major player – a name actor who’s heavily identified with the franchise’s success (say, Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series), or a director credited with keeping a consistent tone and maintaining quality across installments (Christopher Nolan and the Batman trilogy).

The Bourne franchise has now lost its lead actor and star director, and as Lady Bracknell might have put it, to lose one is a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. What they do have is long-term franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who also steps in as director for this installment. So what decisions has Gilroy made while reinventing the franchise, and how have they turned out for him?

A few spoilers, obviously…

Aaron Cross is not Jason Bourne.  No memory loss, no emotional trauma, product of a very different program, Cross is a clean break with the past. In principle, an excellent choice. No one wants to see another actor, however talented, rehashing exactly the same emotional journey as Bourne.

The problem is that Bourne’s intriguing and often moving journey to recover his true self and atone for his past is replaced by… well, I’m not really sure. Cross seems to be planning to break free of the program long before it turns on him –  why would he hide his meds and try to obtain replacements, unless he was trying to build up a surplus so he could abscond? – but we’re never sure why. Forced  on the run, he has excellent outer motivations – stay alive, maintain his enhanced abilities – but his inner desires and thought processes remain obtuse, and that’s a major story problem. We need to understand what the character wants and why (even if he doesn’t!), what his inner journey is, or how can we measure his success or failure?

There’s a shift towards a new sub-genre. While changing genre between installments is risky  (for every Alien/ Aliens, there’s a Highlander/ Highlander 2), a shift within the genre can revitalize a flagging franchise. The genetic enhancement plot shifts us from espionage thriller to scientific thriller, and the plot structure sticks firmly within this new sub-genre; I think I’m right in saying that Cross engages in no on-screen espionage of any sort.

Does it work? I quite like it. The science is reasonably solid, it seems like a plausible development for ‘the program’ to move onto after Treadstone, and it opens up new story and action possibilities. Unfortunately, again, Gilroy doesn’t exploit it as well as he might. Are Cross’ physical and mental abilities shown to be far in excess of Bourne’s? Well, not really. Which leads me to my next point…

There’s a real danger to Cross’ survival and mental health. Unfortunately, there’s no way dramatically to go there.  Yup, I’m talking about the blue pill and Cross’ baseline IQ. Potentially, this is a really interesting idea – Flowers For Algernon territory, great dramatic stuff. But there are some things that even the greatest actors in the world can’t pull off, and suffering a catastrophic diminishment of IQ in the middle of an action movie is probably one of them.

Here’s the thing. Flowers For Algernon works as a story because we meet and empathize with Charlie before his intelligence is enhanced, and follow him through the story – and because that’s what the book is about. We came expecting that. The problem is, no one goes to an action movie to watch the hero abruptly get – to put it crudely – a hell of a lot dumber. The moment Cross’ mental abilities start to crumble, the premise of the story crumbles with them. We jump plot templates from super-spy to King Kong, or more accurately, Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk: a dumb but powerful creature on the run, paired up with a smart and compassionate woman. Which is fine, but it’s not what the audience came for. And promising one thing and delivering another is the fastest way to disappoint your audience and ensure bad word-of-mouth for your movie.

I think Gilroy’s smart enough to know he can never allow Cross to lose his mental enhancements. He just teases us with the possibility. Which means we have a major threat to Cross  – apart from assassination by Agency goons, the only real threat –  but we’re never going to go there. So it’s false jeopardy. So what’s the point?

What’s my point in all this?  If there’s one thing I’m realizing about story, it’s that you have to push every idea to its limit – not just in your head, but on the page.

As a new writer, we all have the urge to cram our scripts with every cool idea we’ve ever had, and every fun character we can think of. In fact, what we need is to find that one idea that forms the core of our story, dig into it and explore every facet of it, and work it into every scene of our script. The same with character; you don’t need dozens of cool characters, you need to choose four or five and explore them, test them, push them to their limits and force them to show us who they really are.

Less really is more – if you get everything you can out of it.

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