I watched Jason Bourne last week, and decided to follow it up by watching all the movies that came before it, in order. I'd seen the first three before (and I knew I wasn't crazy when I remembered seeing that phone call scene in both movies!), but The Bourne Legacy was new to me. It takes place basically concurrently with the second half of The Bourne Supremacy, and it expands the world to give more insight into the Treadstone project and the shady CIA business that surrounds it. It was a good idea. But it also suffered from a serious narrative flaw. Since I'm a writer, it seems appropriate to use this movie as an example to explain the flaw, so that anyone else who wants to write a story and reads this journal will perhaps not make that mistake themselves.
*** Serious spoilers for The Bourne Legacy follow. But the movie came out 5 years ago, so you brought this on yourself ***
The plot of The Bourne Legacy is basically that under extra scrutiny, the Treadstone Project (which produced Jason Bourne and other agents) is terminated with extreme prejudice. The government kills all the agents and the scientists who had been performing the fitness tests on them, so that there won't be any loose ends. Additionally, the agents have been taking two pills to give them mental and physical enhancements. Hawkeye is the only agent to survive the purge, and Rachel Weisz is the only scientist to survive. He rescues her from an assassination attempt, and she reveals that he doesn't actually need the pills, as he can be dosed in such a way as to make the effects permanent. While being pursued by the CIA, they travel to Manila to get the necessary implements to dose him. The CIA locate them and send a super spy after them, and after he recovers from the side effects of the dosing, the spy chases them through Manila. He kills the spy but gets shot himself, and he and she are helped by some random people who end up putting them on a boat.
And that's the movie. Does it feel like something's ...missing? Like... the ending?
The Bourne Legacy is a masterclass in failing to live up to the promises you give your audience. Throughout the movie, we have Hawkeye as the hero, and Ed Norton as the CIA top dog villain. Hawkeye is trying to survive, and Not Tyler Durden is trying to hunt him down and kill him. The expectation in the audience's mind is that at some point during the movie, these two will meet. That doesn't happen. Instead we're meant to believe that the central struggle in the movie is Hawkeye vs pills, but at no point is anything done to convince us that this is more important than the CIA trying to kill both him and Evie O'Connor. What we have implied to us instead is that getting off the pills is the ultimate goal, and then we never find out what happens next. We don't get closure on Norton vs Renner - we don't even find out what happens when Norton hears that the hitman died. After the set piece chase scene, the movie just ...ends.
When you have a movie that contains a mastermind pulling the strings to try to kill the hero, having the hero just say "Guess I'm on a boat now" is not a satisfying way to end the movie. You need to give the audience closure on that conflict. TBL doesn't do that, and as such it feels unfinished. Hawkeye even leaves an ominous note on the mirror next to his old pillbox, that says "No More." That seriously implies a threat, that he's going to be acting on his own now, and who better to make his first target than the people who tried to have him killed? Chekhov's Gun is the principle that every element in a fictional story should be both necessary and irreplaceable. The common and familiar way to explain this is "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following one it should be fired." Bourne Legacy fails to live up to this numerous times.
One of my favourite examples of this from TBL is the LARX program. In the first half of the movie, it's mentioned in an offhand comment as a theoretical program to replace Treadstone. Then, half an hour from the end, Norton calls up someone from the program to be the man sent to kill Hawkeye and Weisz in Manila. No preamble, no buildup, just "this is the new bad guy." We literally never see this person until this moment. I'm pretty sure he didn't even get a single line of dialogue. Someone else says to Norton at this point something like "The LARX program went from something I'd never heard of, to something theoretical, to an active program, in a matter of hours?" Which is exactly what the audience is thinking. If you're going to have someone be involved in the final chase scene, they need to be in the movie before then. They can't be part of a program that has had no relevance until now, and be absent from the movie until the very end. There must be some kind of foreshadowing.
Then there's foreshadowing they insert and then do nothing with. Towards the end, Hawkeye sees a picture of Jason Bourne on a TV. I think this happens in an airport. He spends several seconds looking pointedly at the picture - the camera even zooms in on it to make sure we know this is what he's looking at. The obvious implication here is that at some point, Hawkeye is going to end up looking for Bourne to help him take down Not Durden. And since he has increased mental acuity, he might even be able to do it. Nope - in this movie, Matt Damon plays Sir Not Appearing In This Film.
There are pacing issues with the film as well, but I'm not going to go into those right now. I think it's hurt by being part of the Bourne franchise, but the plot problems are not excused by that. We are promised things that are not delivered, and we are given things without any reason for them to be there. Those are bad habits for writers to get into.
Compare that to the end of The Bourne Ultimatum. There is a sudden hitman enemy for the set piece chase near the end, but he's brought into the story somewhat gradually. He starts out as the person Bourne has to stop, and only later does he start going after Bourne himself - when he's already established as a character. Then, after the set piece chase through Tangiers, there's another half hour of movie left for Bourne to wrap up the Treadstone storyline. The bad guys get their comeuppance, the heroes live to live another day, and the audience leaves satisfied. Ultimatum did the story well. Legacy did not.
If something is going to be relevant at the end of the story, then it needs to be a non-trivial part of the story up to that point. If something is not going to be relevant at the end of the story, then it either needs to be wrapped up before then, or not be included at all, as letting it just hang there will lead to loose ends that the audience doesn't like. Your story should be as tight as possible. If the audience leaves feeling unfulfilled, then you have failed to fully tell a compelling story, and that's on you.