The Legacy of Bourne: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Forget
IMAGE: The Bourne Legacy (Universal Pictures)
‘We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.’
– Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
I recently watched The Bourne Legacy on a lengthy international flight. Usually I have an aversion to watching something that might require a functioning attention span on an aeroplane. At any moment one’s concentration might be at war with screaming children, real estate feuds for control of the armrest, the Chaplin-esque slapstick of juggling a tray of food through turbulence, or that gnawing, omnipresent fear of ever having to venture into those poorly ventilated bathrooms after about three hours in the air. This time, however, there was a nice analogous quality to the experience. Travelling 500 miles per hour toward another continent, surrounded by friendly strangers whose names you will never know, a bleary fog of jetlag already pressing in; somehow a film about frenetic pursuit and the quest for personal identity seemed oddly resonant…
As those who have already seen it know, this film – the fourth in the series – is not actually a sequel so much as a sidequel (I apologise for the use of this utterly made up word), offering a narrative that runs alongside, and at times intersects with, the details of the original trilogy. Indeed, even the title indicates as much: this is the Legacy of Bourne; and consequentially, the shadow that this assumed knowledge of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne casts upon the experience of the present film proves stifling.
The principle character in this tale, Aaron Cross (played by Jeremy Renner), is suffering in the wake of Bourne’s actions throughout the preceding films. Bourne, by uncovering the identity he lost in his plot-convenience bout of amnesia, has kicked over a proverbial ants nest of governmental black ops. So, while he hunts out the dark truths of his own covert engagements with ‘Treadstone’ and ‘Blackbriar’, Cross, a member of another such operation called ‘Outcome’, gets swept up in a super-assassin housecleaning, and must (like Bourne before him) run for his life from the people he once loyally served.
The film plays as part homage, part pastiche – it is even bookended by the same images as the first film (a silhouette of a suspended figure in water; the heroic couple retiring to a life of anonymity by the ocean), acknowledging the immediate familiarity of its dramatic arc. But the fact that it runs in continuous parallel with the events of its predecessors means that the audience is being repeatedly compelled to linger on the comparison. It is a peculiar structural decision that invites the viewer to engage in a persistent critical mediation:
Oh, this is a fantastically visceral vehicle chase through dense traffic – you know, just like the one in The Bourne Supremacy… And wow, this is a snappy rooftop chase – kind of like the one in The Bourne Ultimatum… And hey, he’s falling in love with the girl he’s been forced to bring with him on his flight for freedom – just like what happened in The Bourne Identity… And this brutal, MacGyverish defence of a woodland cabin – that’s pretty much what happened in Identity, isn’t it? And all this spry, kinetic brawling…
Well, you get the idea.
Even if it’s not fair (or perhaps even accurate) to say it, one is left with the vague sensation that there is a better, less derivative movie going on somewhere else – somewhere off-screen – on a different film reel you saw years ago.
In many ways, in light of this restrictive reliance upon its source material, Legacy operates like an action film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In Stoppard’s existential play, he subverts the familiar progression of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by exploring what the prince’s two childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were doing when they weren’t part of the original tale’s momentum. Tasked with spying on Hamlet in Shakespeare’s version of the play, to test whether his feigned madness is real, in Stoppard’s version they sit on the narrative sidelines, where the audience follows them, making a futile attempt to reason out their purpose in a series of unfolding events they look upon with mystification.
The tragic comedy of the play comes from the knowledge (implicit and dawning) both in the audience and the characters themselves, that their fates are already sealed, and that no matter what they do, they cannot shake off the betrayal and slaughter that await them at play’s end. It is a death sentence that was prescribed by Shakespeare’s text four hundred years previous, and their every action only seems to bring it further to fruition.
In an act of prescient, absurdist self-awareness Guildenstern summarises the nature of their circumstance, surmising that they are trapped within a sequence of inevitabilities that will ultimately lead to their doom. As he declares, unknowingly also summarising the narrative constraint that robs Aaron Cross of his own agency, being pulled along in Bourne’s slipstream in Legacy:
‘Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are… condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost.’
And so, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and seemingly Aaron Cross after them) nonetheless continue on, impossibly trying to reconcile their awareness that they are prey to the whims of larger narrative machinations that, by necessity, strip them of their human agency.
It’s a shame, because at their heart, the Bourne narratives have a fantastic, if somewhat specific thematic drive that raises them above the usual simplified blockbuster action film pyrotechnics. Indeed, it’s for that very reason that the Bourne films, at the beginning of the last decade, gave the Bond franchise the pants down spanking it needed to sober up and take itself more seriously. Suddenly, here was a series that – alongside ticking all the applicable boxes as thrilling, adrenaline-spiking romps – also had a cohesion and strong central conceit that could legitimately offer a palate upon which to explore a character.
The problem with that fundamental premise, however, is that each film is therefore defined by a sense of feverish pursuit (which even find its way into the shaky-cam cinematography and the snap edits). The principle figure, in rediscovering himself, has fled his masters, and they track him mercilessly, desperate to silence or destroy him. The plots are therefore propelled by a fugitive escapism, a reclamation of ‘selfhood’ that dances on the periphery of an omnipresent ‘authority’ longing to detain, desensitise and destroy the newfound individuality of the protagonist. The themes that they tap into are powerful, primal fears, and work spectacularly in controlled bursts – but as Legacy shows, it might be too narrow a subject matter to sustain a whole series of films; marvellous lightning in a bottle, but not a self-sustaining power source.
Broadly, these themes concern personal identity. What defines us: our past, present, or future? Are we the sum total of our actions, or our potentiality for betterment? In the original trilogy, Bourne rejects the brutality of his past, refusing to assassinate a man in front of his children despite his mission objective; and the seismic shock of this negation of orders (along with some minor being-shot-twice-in-the-back) dislodges his sense of self so profoundly that he is amnesiatically (I do not apologise for the use of this also-completely-made-up word) remade as a rogue agent of justice – the automaton that grew a heart.
The Bourne films therefore negotiate the place of the individual in the dehumanising conglomerate of the corporate structure. It’s why they are all so frontloaded with bureaucrats. Sure, those suits repeatedly act like morons:
‘Hey, I know, guys: since there’s a phone call coming from across town, let’s clear out this whole building and leave no one behind to guard our secret files. I’m sure Bourne won’t reverse-Goldilocks us…*
‘Oh, yeah, and we should probably just put that safe filled with classified government documents in the office with the largest open windows. I doubt anyone would think to just look through the glass…’
But the working grind of the civil servant is central to the thematic drive of these films, hence the calibre of actor they plug into these potentially thankless roles. Sure, there’s the grab-bag of peripherals that appear in all films like these – Dishevelled-Tech-Guy who asks ‘Where is this footage coming from?’ and Highly-Caffeinated-Assistant-with-a-Stack-of-Folders who points at a screen and says ‘Can we zoom in on that?’ – but then there’s Chris Cooper as the CIA Deputy Director; David Strathairn as the Blackbriar executive officer; and even Albert Finney labcoating it up as a company doctor tasked with guiding the program. In this latest instalment, that’s Ed freaking Norton combing through paperwork with his shirtsleeves rolled, sardonically firing out snappy rejoinders as somewhere, in another office, his half-finished instant coffee goes stale.
Bourne has fled a bureaucracy so entrenched that it completely lacks any oversight, a hive of suits and paperwork and group-think that has walled itself off from all human compassion. Indeed, it is a system that is so blinded by its directive that it has started literally deprogramming identities and rebuilding them as unquestioning servants – perfect tools for a desensitised intelligence agency that reacts without accountability, self-validated by the vagaries of ‘the greater good’. Bourne’s primary adversaries are people in conferences and meetings; people who have their calls forwarded to deny accountability; people who wear lanyards that define them through codes of clearance.
It is also for this reason that each of the films is punctuated by some variation of a chase or a fight with a wordless assassin. These seemingly innumerable figures, Terminator-esque in their predatory focus, near-indestructibility, and dedication to their task, are spectres of the life that Bourne (or Cross’ Bourne 2.0) have shaken off in their quest for individuality. As the Professor (Clive Owen) – one of the first of these professional killers sent to kill Bourne – says as his life drains out:
‘Look at this. Look at what they make you give.’
In his dying breath he acknowledges the sacrifice of autonomy that this dedication to the corporate structure has wrought; and it is a sentiment that Bourne himself later repeats moments before he flees one final time into the shadows of anonymity at the end of Ultimatum. They are ‘assets’, faceless, replaceable cogs in the engine of administration. And so, Jason Bourne, and Aaron Cross in his wake, fight back against monolithic company intrusions into their personal liberties; bewildering the bureaucrats, bypassing Big Brother…
…b-doing something else that starts with ‘b’.
Bourne instead fights to discover his history, and in doing so rejects this personality sublimation, pursuing another, entirely on his own terms. Meanwhile, in Legacy’s parallel version of the tale, rather than identity, Renner’s character is seeking autonomy – freedom from the drugs upon which, at the insistency of his superiors, he has become reliant. Bourne seeks a reclamation of self through the confrontation and acceptance of his actions (who he was, and what he has done); Cross pursues free will by severing the chemical tether that makes him a puppet of his treacherous masters.
For Jason Bourne, this quest for independence offers a striking eruption of rebellion. He defies convention, and strikes out in his own, new path, remaking himself in the process. He literally even rejects the label ‘Jason Bourne’ that has been applied to him by his erstwhile creators, and all of its implied ownership. In The Bourne Legacy, however, while Cross likewise seeks for selfhood, his journey suffers in the form of a different form of entrapment: being mired under the obligation to both weave amongst the narrative logic and recapture the unique tone of the first trilogy.
Consequentially, while the movie is actually a solid, serviceably engaging ride, the problem remains that the audience is reminded that they have seen it all before – left unable to invest in the drama from which they are dislocated. As Guildenstern says, erupting at Rosencrantz as their tragic fate slowly coalesces before them at the end of the play:
‘Why don’t you say something original! No wonder the whole thing is so stagnant! You don’t take me up on anything – you just repeat it in a different order!’
To which Rosencrantz replies that he cannot think of anything original; that he is, after all, ‘only good in support.’ And for film propelled at its core by the conceit that individuality and autonomy are worth cherishing, are worth fighting for above all else, the plot of Legacy collapses in on itself by chasing a phantom it should have known could never be captured.
IMAGE: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Cinecom Pictures)
* This happens, by the way, literally seconds after they realise that Bourne must be within visual range of their building.