The Bourne Legacy
A thriller that doesn’t require you to shave several points off from your IQ – that’s how Tony Gilroy describes The Bourne Legacy, but you could apply that description to any number of films on his resume. Gilroy has worked steadily as a screenwriter over the last two decades, and penned the first three entries in the Bourne series, which were the very definition of smart, cerebral action flicks. He stepped behind the camera for 2007’s acclaimedMichael Clayton, and followed that up with the equally lean corporate espionage tale Duplicity. There was never any doubt that the Bourne series was in good hands when Gilroy stepped in to replace Paul Greengrass as director, but with the absence of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, the challenge was finding a leading man worthy of the series’ pedigree. That leading man proved to be Jeremy Renner, whose mixture of toughness and vulnerability made him perfect for the role of Aaron Cross.
As Gilroy tells it, he tiptoed into the project long after everyone else had initially walked away. Attending a meeting with producers – a “very casual meeting”, he stresses to me – to discuss the future of the series post-Damon and Greengrass, he suggested that perhaps the next film could be about a larger conspiracy involving a project like the one that spawned Jason Bourne. The business people liked the idea, but Gilroy wasn’t sure he was up for the job – he didn’t yet have a character to hang his story on, and for him, this is all that matters. “The character is really where I always start,” he explains. “It’s never about a theme or an overarching story – it’s always about an individual who wants something desperately, who needs something. The place where it got interesting for me, when I decided I might actually be interested in writing and directing, is when the character of Aaron Cross began to emerge.”
Cross is a loose end left behind by a failed CIA program; escaping execution at the beginning of the film, he finds himself in a desperate race to escape those who want him dead. Casting the role proved to be an extremely tricky business. “We conducted a very lengthy, public search for a long time,” Gilroy explains. “We ran around and auditioned a lot of people, spoke to a lot of people, screen tested people, got very interested in some people. The bar was high and the requirements were enormous – we really needed to pick the right person. Late in the process, The Avengers tightened up their schedule, and all of a sudden, Jeremy was available.” He was just the kind of star they were looking for – an actor about to break very big, who didn’t yet have a signature role to his name, or the associations that inevitably come with that. “We were immediately interested,” Gilroy says. “We ran right over to throw a script at him and have a conversation.”
Renner gives one of several outstanding performances in the film – another comes courtesy of Edward Norton, who plays CIA operative Eric Byer. Byer is ostensibly the bad guy of the piece, leading the hunt for Cross, but part of what makes him so sinister is he plays the role as a normal guy just trying to do his job. Byer simply refers to himself as a patriot, a concept Gilroy finds fascinating. “This is a guy who really has his eyes wide open,” he says, “a brilliant guy who really believes that somebody has to carry the bodies out of the town square in the dark of night so that everybody else can be safe. Certainly in America, you want to be safe, you want your family to be safe, even if you’re conflicted about some of the things you’re tacitly condoning to make that happen. He’s a living expression of that, and it would have been unfortunate to have a character like that and not have the opportunity get into some of those ideas.”
Gilroy’s films all have a toughness to them, an overriding sense of the masculine, but The Bourne Legacy features that most masculine of all movie set-pieces – a really big car chase. This climactic scene takes place on the streets of Manila, and for Gilroy, shooting it was something of a dream come true. “There’s no incredible secret to how a car chase is done,” he says, when I ask how it came together. “You need to have the right people around you, including a great second-unit director, you have to have enough money, and you have to begin planning it a very long time in advance. I like to go to real places and create a sequence that really uses both the possibilities and the limitations of the environment, and I did this over many, many trips to Manila. A sequence like that may seem overwhelming, but if you take it piece by piece, beat by beat, you can put it together.” That and it’s fun as hell. “You get to be seven years old again and smash little cars together,” he laughs. “You have to love that.”
With The Bourne Legacy set for release this week, I ask Gilroy if he sees the film as the potential beginning of a new series starring Renner. “I don’t know exactly,” he says. “There’s no master plan for what’s going to happen here. I mean, one thing that was very important to us is that we wanted to make a movie that could stand strongly on its own – you don’t necessarily need to know anything about the previous three to get something out of this one. We’ve road-tested it to make sure it works that way. We also wanted something that would preserve the spirit of the past, something that the true fans would be able to dig back into. [And we] wanted to leave ourselves in a place where the mythology we’d created could move in a bunch of different directions.”
The audience’s reaction will, of course, play a part in this. Whether filmgoers embrace Renner as Aaron Cross remains to be seen, but Gilroy feels good either way. “I’m not nervous,” he says. “I like my movie, and that’s where you’ve got to be. The rest of it is just very exciting.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
The Bourne Legacy is in cinemas now.