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Exclusive: Tony Gilroy Pulls The Curtain Back On The Secretive 'The Bourne Legacy'

Photo of Rodrigo Perez By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist July 20, 2012 at 12:08PM

Tony Gilroy has a mini-armada at his disposal. In June of 2012, in an unassuming block of offices in midtown Manhattan, the writer/director is sequestered with a team of editors orchestrating the next installment of Universal’s lucrative ‘Bourne’ franchise, which grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide theatrically and a surfeit more from DVD and omnipresent cable appearances. But Gilroy -- who was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay in 2007 for "Michael Clayton," and is the author of all three original ‘Bourne’ scripts -- isn’t simply mounting a reboot or a reimagining, or conducting a linear sequel. Instead, the filmmaker is attempting to pull off a feat rarely attempted with Hollywood tentpoles: a parallel circumnavigation of the familiar ‘Bourne’ narrative told through the eyes of another agent.
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The Bourne Legacy, Rachel Weisz, Jeremy Renner,

Tony Gilroy and his brother and editor John screen a generous dollop of ‘Bourne Legacy’ footage that’s at once fascinating, intriguingly new and thrillingly familiar in its propulsive use of tempo beyond just action (co-scripted by Tony and his brother Dan, “The Bourne Legacy” is somewhat of a family affair).

In “The Bourne Identity,” the shadow hand at play is Operation Treadstone, its successor Operation Blackbriar is at the nexus of the next two ‘Bourne’ sequels, and in ‘Legacy,’ the newest program is Operation Outcome. They are all off-the-books black ops programs under the same clandestine canopy. Similar, and yet, we’re soon to discover, very different.

One way of looking at the new film in the series -- at least in its opening -- is through the riflescope of an assassin watching the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” unfold. Only to discover in “The Bourne Legacy” another assassin who has been spying in on that sharpshooter all along. To keep it simpler, it’s as if the aperture and frame have opened fully to reveal the greater cloak-and-dagger machinations at work. And from an outside perspective, the idea seems like a brilliantly clever way to reinvent the series.

One early sequence shows the stakes for all involved are do or die. Norton’s character, who calls what they do "morally indefensible, but absolutely necessary," likens the consequences of the ‘Ultimatum’ political scandal to a cancer. If it "metastasizes," before they can treat it -- put it in remission by deflagrating all the evidence, including the agents -- they're fucked. "Can you imagine the magnitude if this goes sideways on us?" he says to his team with furrowed concern. Outcome has become a liability, so it must be burned to the ground.

"They haven't just been physically enhanced, there's a cognitive aspect to it that's very important.”

An action setpiece in the streets of Manila that evolves into a terrific motorcycle chase goes on for a heart-stopping 18 minutes. Renner completed a lot of his own stunts, including a breathtaking jump off a building where he slides down between two walls with his feet. The dedicated actor was mounted on a safety rig, but still has bruises and scars to show for his daring work in the film.

Most notably, the visual vocabulary has changed in this iteration, trading vertiginous discombobulation for orientation, yet without sacrificing propulsion or testosterone. And Gilroy has two valuable assets by his side: cinematographer Robert Elswit ("There Will Be Blood," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol") and legendary stunt coordinator Dan Bradley who worked on all the previous ‘Bourne’ films. A sequence in a lab that introduces Rachel Weisz’s scientist character Dr. Marta Shearing is chilling in its use of violence: clean, cynical and remorseless. The exact opposite tone of the shaky-cam anatomy from the ‘Bourne’ films.

Several familiar faces from the ‘Bourne’ narrative are seen throughout in keeping with the narrative and the aftermath of ‘Ultimatum’ when Blackbriar is exposed to the public. CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), Task Force Chief Pamela Landey (Joan Allen), CIA director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), Special Agent Ray Wills (Corey Johnson) and more all return in small but crucial supporting roles. And several new characters are introduced including Norton’s Ret. Col. Ric Byer character, Byer’s team (which includes Corey Stoll and Donna Murphy) and another Outcome agent played by Oscar Isaac.

While Treadstone operatives -- Matt Damon, Marton Csokas, Clive Owen and Edgar Ramirez’s characters -- in the previous films were trained assassins, Outcome operatives like Aaron Cross are more complex. And whereas Blackbriar and Treadstone were CIA programs, Outcome lies under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. “They’re not assassins; that's not their primary objective,” Gilroy said. “They're very very submersive, incredibly nimble, and they haven't just been physically enhanced, there's a cognitive aspect to it that's very important. They're very very adaptive, they're very diverse and the things that they do are very long term and of extremely high value to the D.O.D..”

And unlike Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross doesn’t suffer from amnesia or a lack of identity, the driving force in the previous Bourne films. Cross’ motivations, something Gilroy won’t fully explain for fear of fundamental story spoilers, point to something much larger in play that hopes to widen the canvas of the ‘Bourne’ story.

“No, Aaron Cross remembers everything,” Gilroy explains, clearly trying to dance around the film's heavily guarded secrets. “It's very, very different, he's not morally confused at all. There is something very fundamentally, soulful and really emotionally powerful stuff that's driving Aaron Cross, that's such a potent piece of character motivation. There’s an element of ‘Spartacus’ in here, of the people in that program tugging at their leash a bit, but it's a more fundamental thing for him and it's not about morality but it’s as Greek as that.”

This article is related to: The Bourne Legacy, Tony Gilroy, Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Features, Interviews, Interview


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