Last night's press screening of The Bourne Legacy in New York City was for the most part all fun. Jeremy Renner stars as a secret agent whose physical and cognitive performance is enhanced by blue and green pills, enabling him to accomplish superhuman feats. It's action fantasy, not the action reality of Renner's previous big outing, Iraq War-set The Hurt Locker. But the first act contains a mass shooting that hits a bit too close to home in the wake of the Aurora shootings, Sunday's shooting in a Sikh temple, and even the now-awakened memories of the shootings in Columbine. In the scene, a scientist locks all of his co-workers with top clearance inside their lab, then kills them one by one, as they beg him not to shoot. It's a harrowing scene. Later on, Renner snaps the necks of uniformed security guards and murders any number of additional people, but those killings don't have quite the same impact as seeing unarmed scientists helpless against a deranged colleague.
There's no way Universal could have omitted the scene without pulling the film altogether. I don't think I would have felt uncomfortable until Sunday's copycat killing made mass killings in general taboo to my mind. However, I would be surprised if the studio hasn't at least had a conversation about the scene. Perhaps it's not as eerily similar as a scene featuring a shooting in a movie theatre in Warner Bros.' The Gangster Squad, which was pulled to be reworked because the narrative hinges on that sequence, but the similarity took me out of the movie and reminded me of all the tragedy that has taken place in real life.
Here's an argument that has no easy answer. Is it better to stage fantasy violence, with actors who never seem to be hurt even when they're injured, and who perform feats no one could ever do in real life? Or is it better to make the violence painfully real, with gruesome pain and weariness and failure? The latter, which is often more graphic, can make one viewer feel absolutely repelled and disgusted, while the other is enthralled by the gore. That's where any argument for how to portray violence runs into trouble. Violence in movies isn't just about how it's portrayed, but about the myriad of ways people respond to seeing violence on screen. Hollywood movies are designed to make money, but the form is also an art, and one I have no desire to see censored. The scene in The Bourne Legacy brought the horror of such an event to life. If this makes people engage with what they have seen, post their response on social networks and talk to their friends about it afterwards, I think movies have done their job.