Saturday, August 18, 2012


Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Željko Ivanek
Director: Tony Gilroy
Runtime: 135 min.
Verdict: Outside of an egregious filmmaking choice, it is about its own lack of personality and its attempts to find one.   
Genre: Action, Thriller

                Michael Clayton had a conscience. He was a janitor, but still, there was an ideology that sprang into action once the line was crossed. I might not agree with the politics of the Bourne films, but at least they had a spine. The calm figure of Mr. Damon walking assuredly through a whole lot of chaos and bringing the war to “their” doorstep is almost the symbol of the revolution, and image so strongly loaded with integrity I half-imagine someone like Tobin Frost (Safe House, a movie with some real conviction and a real spine) having the poster on his wall. Mr. Gilroy offers no such pleasures, presents absolutely nothing by way of ideology, and instead deals through a world-view where globalization is mistaken for global conspiracy. I mean, you wonder. Why the hell is the chemical plant set in Manila? I mean, a film like The Dark Knight has the mob money siphoned off into the east (which taken alone is understandable), or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol has an Indian billionaire buy disposed satellites, and here we’ve a chemical factory that seems to be under the de-facto authority of covert operations. Is the east is a vast dumping ground? Or a place where our protagonist can conveniently kill dozens of cops because they present nothing by way of an ethical dilemma? Cops who were merely doing their jobs. There is so much collateral damage in Manila and so many dead cops you wonder if the movie has got its antagonist wrong. The cops and the plant and its workers offer no personality of their own. They merely exist to fill the place, to function as a background, run when needed to, and scream when the plot demands. Maybe, that sort of absolute apathy might be an apt acknowledgment of the scheme of things (Foxconn and stuff). It might be worthwhile here to remember those goons Karen Crowder (Ms. Tilda Swinton) hires to kill Arthur Edens, goons who have absolutely no idea about the intentions behind the job that is being asked of them (one of them looking away while talking to Karen is one of those movie moments I dream of), goons who do it nevertheless because that is their profession. That might be a more decent representation of globalization than the poor excuses for protagonist-awesomeness Mr. Gilroy summons here from time to time. I mean, it is most definitely not a legacy.  
                That is not the worst aspect of the film though. Mr. Gilroy, about half-an-hour into the film, constructs one of the most horrific moments of the year thus far, so immediate in its emotional impact it assumes a weight and significance that almost divorces it from the rest of the narrative. It is its own film, sort of like the Sanford Clark thread in Changeling, and what Mr. Gilroy does with it is probably offensive. Not merely because it provides for a spin of adolescent spy-fiction on current events, but because that little film so precisely captures the dread of such a situation. Here is an opportunity for a filmmaker to elevate himself from the functionalities of his trade to the ethics of an artist by reducing the visceral reality of a moment and trade it for the intended political statement. You know, project MKUltra and all. Donald Foite (Mr. Ivanek) is a doctor/scientist at a high facility bio-genetic laboratory, and his introduction is a warm chat with Dr. Martha Shearing (Ms. Weisz) where they share a smile. It sets up an expectation, or a lack of it, and when Dr. Foite walks into one of the labs and bolts all the doors and starts shooting the next time we see him, it is an action that is horrific because it is rooted in complete abstraction. We know the yellow pill is being administered to eliminate agents around the world but this form of wiping-the-trace is not what we expect. He shoots them one by one, the moment captured in real-time, the sequence probably the first time in the film where the narrative isn’t juggling two or more threads, and while the death of agents is a mere plot point this shoot-out completely overshadows whatever has been narrated until then. It arrives out of nowhere and becomes something it didn’t need to because of inappropriate filmmaking choices. With what has happened in the past few weeks, and to then to have it interpreted (reduced) as a case of government conspiracy that involves administering chemicals to screw your brain into becoming a killing machine, assumes an unintentional but terribly tasteless viewpoint of those events. It might be unfair to blame Mr. Gilroy here, and while I wonder now how exactly the sequence that led Warner bros. to postpone the release of The Gangster Squad pans out, I wish Universal had exhibited a similar sort of discretion.   
                In the light of the rest of the film, which is either a parody of the action/chase sequences of the previous films or one that is laughably inept, it might have very well been the clever thing to do. The final chase, which is triggered by an ingenious shout-out by Martha (in hindsight the one moment I loved in the film), turns into a pissing contest. Covertness be damned. Secrecy be damned. The assassin, codenamed Larx-03, is something of a hound. Rather, he is a hound. In human form. Or reduced to one. Can’t make up my mind. There’re wolves in this film, and I suppose there’s a metaphor to be made. Feel free there. Aaron Cross (Mr. Renner) runs from the cops over rooftops and our friend Larx-03 here sniffs his coat and follows the trail. It is no chase for sure, so it is following. Aaron runs over buses, Larx-03 runs over hoardings. Aaron gets a sports bike, Larx-03 gets a heavier one. The ensuing chase is all about how they each perform various stunts on a bike, and I was reminded of this commercial, which happens to be done with a far greater economy. You’ve all these people sitting in closed rooms looking at computer monitors and giant screens obsessing over the threat a Youtube video poses to these secret missions and you start worrying if somebody there, especially Eric Byer (Mr. Norton) who has already been gifted periorbital dark circles, will smash his head against the wall. Unlike the previous films, there is no political or personal dimension to the chase. There is this Deadline interview with Mr. Gilroy, and one gets the sense he is too much in awe of Mr. Damon. Which is probably right, considering that the Bourne trilogy is one of those unique films where the auteur is the actor, considering that they are shaped, above all else, by Mr. Damon’s personality. Jason Bourne has his reasons, and I’m wondering if the big board-room discussion down at Universal to continue the franchise without its auteur was about finding new reasons. Mr. Gilroy needed to make a make a movie on those reasons, and it seems, he instead made a movie about the search for those reasons. He picks up a regular Joe with no spine and no stake, pumps him with chemicals so that he can at least pretend to be Bourne, and sets him off in search of an emotion. Which he supposedly finds in Martha. It is a befitting that she has the film’s final word. My only hope is they seek some personality out of her. 


Dan O. said...

The ensemble was chosen perfectly, and even though there is no Matt Damon, we still get plenty of great spots from Renner and his performance as Aaron Cross. I look forward to seeing what Gilroy does with this character in the future, but for now, I’m just glad he made it work. Good review Satish.

Satish Naidu said...

Thanks Dan!
That's in fact one of my contentions. They have a great cast there, with Ms. Weisz and Mr. Renner, and of course, Mr. Norton. I wish they made better use of them.

Julie H. said...

Matt Damon bourne movies are way better but addition such as Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton are always good to see