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The Bourne Legacy: Who’s the New Guy?

The Bourne films have more than just overstayed their welcome and outlasted the Ludlum books—they’ve been Van Halenized, with an abrupt change of frontman and a resulting dip in personality. The only big-ass popcorn franchise of the past decade to have not been spawned on computers, the series up to now has survived via Matt Damon’s beady gaze, making decisions about where the story goes, even as director Paul Greengrass’s jittery action fuzz did its best to render the set pieces of the past two entries almost unwatchable. (Doug Liman’s initial film, maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of CGI, still pulses with panic and still freezes the channel-surfing thumb in mid click.) Now, we have Jeremy Renner as another Treadstone mega man (there were nine, apparently), and though he is a likable enough pug-nosed action figure, the Damonlessness is sorely felt.

Renner is not stranded by himself—The Bourne Legacy is chockablock with busy character-actor casting, from Edward Norton’s nasally fed bulldog to fleeting cameos by David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen. (For the extra work of a Guardian journalist who’s killed without a line of dialogue, they even bothered to get Paddy Considine.) The film is as densely packed with officious people and global villages as Syriana and takes itself about as seriously. Mostly, though, Renner has on-the-run scientist helpmate Rachel Weisz, who is 41 going on 23 and brings a badly needed, full-throated payload of personal energy to her tagalong scenes, even though they’re just that.

Given the film’s relentless slam-blam effect, it’s rather amazing that anybody gets to act at all. (James Newton Howard’s score is abusive, with every mere establishing shot of Tokyo or Chicago getting a brontosaur’s soundtrack stomp.) But acting does happen, mostly in a two-sentence splats, just enough to kick the narrative one more foot down the highway on its way to the inevitable showdown. There’s a lot of pensive screen-watching in dark surveillance rooms.

Tony Gilroy, on his fourth Bourne and now unleashed from Ludlum’s paperbacks (the subsequent Eric Van Lustbader sequels, even the one titled The Bourne Legacy, were not consulted), overplots in the Christopher Nolan manner. But Gilroy was smart enough to make room for juicy dramatics: After the film’s lengthy centerpiece begins with a hairy workplace-shooting ordeal that Weisz survives, she heads to her crumbling fixer-upper mansion in the woods, where she’s visited by seemingly concerned feds. Antics ensue, but only after a hearty dose of old-school interpersonal tension. The story in general takes a while to hit gears, but its primary task is revealing the broader program from which Bourne arose and the pharmaceutical basis of its behavioral modifications. Renner’s Aaron Cross, first met fighting off wolves in Alaska, is a pill-
popping über-mensch who suddenly realizes, as per Norton’s bureaucratic fiat, that the program is being shut down and its progeny eliminated one by one. He’s motivated to survive the onslaught (at first, via drone) but also to score more über-dope; Weisz’s lab geek agrees to help only after realizing she’s being hunted, too.

This presents a dynamic Damon might not have enjoyed: Without his meds, the quick-minded Cross would revert back to his old learning-disabled self, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. (“I’ve got a long way to fall,” Cross says, grumbling.) You can’t blame the lug, though the notion that only a daily dose of “viral” beanies was all Damon’s Bourne needed to be Bourne is disenchanting, to say the least. The exposition supporting this chemical backstory fills the eddies in the action flow in ways the Bourne movies never required before, and the techno-gibberish flies like confetti.

Bourne, we’re told, is also still evading assassination somewhere, and perhaps Universal is hoping for a Damon/Greengrass reunion for number five, which we’ll call The Bourne Redundancy for now. Renner might just be a placeholder. Working in the trenches so he can eventually make himself another Michael Clayton, Gilroy keeps things brisk and relatively smart, but he can’t be surprised if we find the rooftop-‘n’-motorcycle chase through Manila a little rote by now, however white-knuckly and free of Greengrass camera palsy. The late-in-the-game introduction of a supervillain—a Bourne 2.0 from a “beta program” flown in from Bangkok in white skinny jeans—feels like outright pandering. But hell, it’s the fourth film, and that’s what happens when Hollywood hyperextends a simple paradigm beyond even the patience of the last cast and crew. (Greengrass just “wasn’t interested” in another Bourne, and without him, Damon bailed.) Are we expecting much more?

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Tony Gilroy’s (Heretofore Unseen) Expert Light Touch in Duplicity

Whether it’s the amnesiac super-spy of the Bourne franchise or the weary law-firm fixer of Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy specializes in characters who wear so many masks that, memory loss or no, they scarcely know who they are anymore. Guided by instinct, his soldiers of fortune patrol a ruthless landscape of big government and bigger business, where truth is traded like any other commodity and dissenting voices are more often silenced than heard. So it’s of little surprise that, for his second film as director, Gilroy leans heavily on his favored tropes of international espionage and cutthroat capitalism. The surprise is that Duplicity is a comedy—about two people who love each other more than they could ever trust each other—and a superb one at that.

Whatever one thought of the undeniably smart, often unbearably overwrought Michael Clayton, few would have pegged it as the work of an inspired farceur. Yet Duplicity is nearly as bubbly as the champagne whose corkage becomes a running motif, as if the heretofore dour Gilroy were finally releasing a long-suppressed giggle. Even the corridors of corporate malfeasance are a markedly less sinister place this time around; where the fictional petrochemical giant of Michael Clayton considered staged suicides and car bombs the cost of doing business, the worst one can expect from Equikrom, Duplicity‘s Proctor & Gamble–esque manufacturing behemoth, is that it will steal its competitors’ garbage (and closely guarded R&D secrets).

The job of executing this trash-heap skullduggery falls to a team of intelligence experts, including two former government operatives who’ve retired to the private sector. Ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) is already deep undercover as a mole inside Equikrom’s chief rival, Burkett & Randle, when ex-MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) comes aboard the Equikrom team. Theirs is a tense reunion, stemming from an episode of drunken flirtation, lovemaking, and stolen Egyptian air-defense codes five years prior. But they agree to set aside their differences in order to focus on the mission at hand: penetrate the firewall surrounding Burkett’s new, top-secret “miracle” product. It all seems straightforward enough, until we discover that this isn’t the first—or even the second (or the third)—time Claire and Ray have crossed paths in the last half-decade. By which point, Duplicity is already a few paces ahead of us, and it’s only just getting started.

I could say that the fun of Gilroy’s who’s-conning-whom bauble, which ping-pongs about in time and place from New York to Rome to London and back, comes from not knowing where it’s headed next. That’s partly true, but the rarer pleasure is the confidence that Gilroy inspires, such that where he’s taking us hardly matters at all. Like the tart-tongued screwball romps of the 1930s and Soderbergh’s latter-day screwball Out of Sight, Duplicity luxuriates in implausible situations, high-caliber dialogue that ricochets off every Dolby Digital speaker, and two immensely likable movie stars who possess the thing that no amount of intra-agency packaging can will into being: chemistry. After schlepping his bedraggled self through the torpor-inducing hoops of The International, Owen here gets to travel in far more suitable Giorgio Armani style, while Roberts (at her most radiant) steals what may be the movie’s funniest scene without saying a single word.

Comedy seems to have liberated Gilroy, who directs Duplicity with the high gloss and fleet-footed hustle of a golden-age Hollywood craftsman. There’s nary a dull stretch in its two-hour breadth, and the edges and corners of the frames pop with colorful support from the likes of Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as Equikrom and Burkett’s dueling CEOs, whose slow-mo airport-tarmac throwdown underneath the movie’s opening credits generates much early cheer. A Darwinian at heart, minus the Coen Brothers’ irrepressible misanthropic streak, Gilroy seems drawn, above all, to creatures of habit and the ways they adapt—or don’t—to environmental changes. So the spies of Duplicity keep spying (on their bosses and themselves) and the competitors keep competing, whether they need to or not. Like Gilroy himself, they exult not in the game, but in the playing.

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The Fix Is In

It will no doubt be said time and again of Michael Clayton: best John Grisham adaptation ever. Only, of course, it did not spring from the billion-dollar mind of the attorney turned franchise, but from Tony Gilroy, who made his big-screen bow 15 years ago as the screenwriter of the ice-skating melodrama The Cutting Edge. Since then, Gilroy has shored up his now-estimable rep as the writer of the Jason Bourne series (insomuch as he’s the one who writes the few words that director Paul Greengrass throws into his cinematic blender).

No less obsessed with strangling tension and its liberating release in his directorial debut, Gilroy lopes in the opposite direction with Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney as the titular fixer in a law office where attorneys like to bend laws till they break. This is as languid as the Bourne movies are feverish, as nuanced and intricate as those films are full-steam-ahead. Even when a car catches fire in the middle of a frostbitten nowhere, it feels like an addendum to a reverie, a quiet moment (with horses, no less) punctuated by a sonic boom. The dream-like vibe permeates the entire movie— Michael Clayton seems to exist in a world where everyone’s half-asleep, listing from one bad thing to another as they wait for the inevitable blowup.

That said, the story is relatively easy to follow: It’s Erin Brockovich sans the feel-good, yet another story about the Big Bad Corporation doing anything and everything to crush the little people— in this case, the little people it’s poisoning to death. For six years, an agrochemical
company called U/North has been fight- ing a class-action suit in which the plaintiffs allege that its fertilizer is lethal. A brilliant litigator named Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has been defending U/North—only Arthur’s but a cracked
shell of his former brilliant self. His is the first voice the audience hears: Arthur’s narrating a rambling confession to Michael that almost sounds like a suicide note.

Arthur, who disappeared after running naked from a deposition, is in possession of a single document that threatens to undermine U/North’s entire case— six years’ worth of defense, gone like that. His firm’s partners—among them director Sydney Pollack, once more brilliantly cast as a devious, deadpan sonofabitch—want Arthur found and the potential damage contained. U/North’s in-house counsel, played by Tilda Swinton beneath a layer of extra flab and a sheen of dripping sweat, would like Arthur muzzled—by any means necessary, she tells the buttoned-up goon squad that U/North employs for emergencies just like this.

Caught between them is the hollow man himself, in need of redemption— or at least a shower and a shave. Michael may have been hot shit years ago, but now he’s broke, having invested all his dough in a doomed restaurant, and alone, barely a father to the 10-year-old son he lost in the divorce. He’s a degenerate gambler, leaving piles of filthy lucre on underground poker-room tables. And he’s not even a good fixer anymore: When first we see Clayton, he’s stumbling around a spoiled suburbanite’s kitchen, up to his ass in a run-of-the-mill drunk-driving case he would have easily made vanish with his magic wand once upon a long, long time ago.

It will take the audience a good long while to realize that the movie’s earliest scenes are actually flash-forwards, but Gilroy’s not using the commonplace device as some kind of a lookie-there-Ma trick. Rather than taking the audience out of the film (as was the case in 21 Grams, where the gimmick kept drawing our attention away from the story), the tactic here sucks us further in—to the point where an event seen and absorbed early on can still surprise the second time around. It appears as though Gilroy’s learned a great deal from Steven Soderbergh, the first director to wring from Clooney a great performance when they first paired up on Out of Sight—the movie that got Clooney to stop acting with his eyelids. Like Soderbergh, Gilroy uses the time-shifting device to heighten the disquieting surreality of the piece— the audience, like the characters, is never sure of what’s happening, only that one betrayal will lead to something worse.

It would seem an impossible (or at least a preposterously pretentious) trick, turning the commonplace “legal thriller” into something deeply felt. But Gilroy’s up to the challenge, as is his uniformly astounding cast—Clooney, especially, as the charmed and charming man stripped of his superpowers, but also Wilkinson and Swinton as the mirror images of each other, who find in a pile of legal documents absolute truths worth lying and dying for. Michael Clayton has all the makings of something utterly familiar and ordinary, but it argues its case as anything but.