Monday, August 13, 2012

Stupid Is As Stupid Does (Bourne Legacy Review)

Last week I talked about motivation, and how having a strong one can make your character sympathetic and relatable even when they aren’t very developed. Well, today we’re going to talk about what makes a motivation relatable, because I just saw Bourne Legacy.

Yes, I know. Segue.

Bourne Legacy is, first, a really fun movie that all those actiony types should totally see. It’s not required viewing or anything, but it’s fun and slightly smarter than the average kickpunching movie. It’s worth the ticket price, and you might even want to see it again.

Second, though, it’s a really interesting movie. Not because of the plot or the setup or even really the characters. If you’ve seen the other Bourne movies, you’ll get what I mean here. They’re not super developed, but they’re clear. If you haven’t seen the movies, to recap, Jason Bourne is a super-spy with a memory problem. The first movie deals with his attempts to figure out who he is, and the second two movies are about him getting revenge on the people who ruined his life.

For the record, I just boiled down three complex movies into a few sentences, so I’m feeling pretty good right now.

Bourne Legacy picks up where the other Bourne movies leave off. Not involving Jason Bourne at all, Legacy follows his, well, legacy. The other programs that were greenlit because the superspy program he was in did so well. Now that Bourne has exposed them, the people in charge have to destroy any evidence of what they did. And to do that, they have to “wipe” their agents. As in kill. All of them.

And that’s where we come in. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner and Jeremy Renner’s abs) is an agent, a really good one, with a minor attitude problem that he’s being punished for. He’s out in the middle of nowhere when he barely dodges an attack on his life, and now he’s going to figure out what’s going on and how to get away from it. Because Aaron Cross doesn’t want revenge, he just wants to get away.

He also, and this is the important part, wants his meds, which is a strange motivation if you think about it.

In order to get said meds, he (SPOILERS) goes after his doctor from the program, Dr. Schearer…Schaerer…whatever. She’s played by Rachel Weisz. But after he saves her life, he finds out that she can’t get him the pills. She can give him a viral treatment that will make the gene alterations they did to him permanent, but they have to go to Manila for that.

You guessed it, they go to Manila. It’s pretty. Not as pretty as Hanoi, but I’m a little biased.

Anyway, they go to Manila. There’s evasion stuff. All very tense. And somewhere in there, the doctor thinks to ask why the hell Aaron wants this so badly. Why not just let the pills go out of his system and run away?

This is where the unusual but relatable motive comes in. You see, up until this point, you like Aaron. He’s a little funny, very sassy, and saving the nice relatable doctor lady, so he’s a good guy. But you aren’t super invested in him. It’s his motivation for wanting the gene therapy that’s important.


You see, Aaron enlisted in the army when his recruiter fudged his IQ score. By twelve points. That means he was twelve points below the minimum for military recruitment. Aaron was functionally retarded. He was not legally competent to sign anything.

But once he got into the program, they have him meds that upped his IQ to something just above average. Not a lot, but ridiculously far above where it had been. And now Aaron won’t go back to the way it was before. It’s Flowers for Algernon, and he’s definitely not going back to being Charlie.

This is what I mean. It’s not a simple motive by any means. He wants to get gene therapy so that he can not be as dependent as he was before the government messed with his brain (the opposite of River Tam’s general issue). Not. Simple.

But relatable. He wants to be better, because he knows he can, and because he can’t go back to the way he was. That’s hella relatable. And the doc? She wants to help him, because, wouldn’t you? If you had the opportunity to change someone’s life like that, and they were begging you to do it, wouldn’t you?

The rest of the movie carries on in traditional action movie style, with a few fun twists that I am (shockingly) not going to spoil. But I feel like the salient point has been made. Aaron Cross is a relatable character not because we know all that much about his backstory (we don’t), or because he’s shown himself to be such a good person (he hasn’t). He’s relatable because he’s fundamentally insecure. And I think we all get that.

So here’s the message for all you writers, creators, and consumers of popular culture out there: original doesn’t have to be bad. Just because a motivation or a character construct is completely unique (and I genuinely can’t think of any situations like Aaron’s) doesn’t mean it’s not relatable. If you can’t make it relatable, try harder. If your character isn’t sympathetic, ask yourself, what’s really at stake here?

For Aaron, it’s his mind. His independence. His way of life.

And that’s worth preserving.

I do so love a well done action movie. Good for the soul.


  1. thank you thank you thank you thank you! There are so many reviews out there saying this movie is pathetic/poorly done/boring/incoherent/not complex enough/etc just because Aaron Cross is not Jason Bourne; people refuse to evaluate it based on its own merits.

    Great idea to compare it to Flowers for Algernon by the way; this is not a stupid movie just because Cross "doesn't want to be dumb again." ugh, hate that.

    I thought this movie was so well done and incredibly well cast; I just find it unbelievable that Total Recall got mixed reviews while this one is getting panned.

    1. You're so welcome! I really enjoyed the movie, and while I accept that it's probably not everybody's cup of tea (lots of people don't love action, after all), I don't see why it shouldn't be judged on its own merit. It's a solid film with some great performances.

      Haven't seen Total Recall yet--it doesn't come out here until next week. But I'm getting the vibe from you that it's a bit...bad?

    2. Some people appreciated the visuals and/or action scenes (I didn't; I thought it was too CGI-heavy and looked like a video game). And I'll admit that Beckinsale was fun to watch as a villain. But Jessica Biel was painfully dull, as they gave her nothing of substance to say or do, and Colin Farrell was just... there.

      Plus they took out every hint of ambiguity about the real/recall debate, so there's really nothing of interest. I couldn't even enjoy it as a mindless action movie.

      Which is why I was SO appreciative of the characters in Bourne Legacy, and I loved how real the action felt. Stark contrast between action movies done right and done horribly wrong.

    3. That's depressing. I was quite looking forward to that one. Hmmph. And ambiguous ending is so hard to do well, and the original really ran with that. What's next? A Blade Runner reboot where there's an end credit that just says "Deckert is human"?


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