Bourne without Bourne
It should come as no huge surprise that the Bourne action movie series without Bourne himeslf — as is the case in The Bourne Legacy, film number four — just isn’t the same. Describing The Bourne Legacy has to be largely a matter of separating what’s missing from what’s there.
Matt Damon, who played the titular Bourne, has left the series, as has the director of the last two of the three, Paul Greenglass, who directed perhaps the liveliest and smartest two action films of the last decade. Replacing Damon is Jeremy Renner. Renner is a wonderful action star, tough, gnarly, energetic, his ability to embody a man with nerves of steel forcefully demonstrated in the movie that brought him to the world’s attention, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, where he defuses bombs in Iraq. But Renner has almost zero charisma. Likewise Edward Norton and David Strathairn, who seems more suitable for heading a PTA meeting than managing affairs of state, diffuse the fire that flamed brightly in the earlier Bourne movies. And Stacy Keach and Scott Glenn, as two plainclothes military officials, only remind us of the lack of Joan Allen and Eric Cox. As the obsessive head of some security apparatus outside the CIA, Norton can sound ruthless and bark out commands, but with that weak chin and slight lisp he just isn’t as scary or as stylish as Allen and Cox were.
The female interest, a government secret program scientist played by Rachel Weisz — and Aaron Cross, the mysterious Treadstone-style super agent Renner represents — seem to get cozy with each other pretty fast. She is an excellent, if conventional actress, but not as exotic and unpredictable-seeming as Matt Damon’s girlfriend-on-the-run, Franka Potente.
While Jason Bourne searches for his identity and figures out the secrets behind his dangerous skill set, Aaron Cross turns out to be part of a new generation of more lab-created super agents. Bourne was a multilingual, action-hero, super-trained killing machine and the assumption always seemed to be that he began as a talented individual with the physical and mental equipment to acquire the extraordinary training he was given. Cross and his mostly unseen confreres appear to be the next best thing to a set of mutants. And they’re all on drugs. They have to take “blues” and “greens” to stabilise some sort of virus that has been a delivery system for their exceptional abilities. According to Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in the adaptations from the three earlier Bourne movies from Robert Ludlum novels and directed as well as coauthored the screenplay this time, this chemical stuff is based on things coming into being in science right now, perhaps even a worry at the Olympic Games. It’s “chromosomal gene doping through a synthetic virus.” Cross, it turns out, was of sub-normal intelligence, so if his viral delivery system goes awry he’ll be in big trouble.
Cross and Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz) go on the run seeking a way to bypass his need for meds, or “chems” as the special agents call them. So the race is not to discover his identity and find out what he was being used for (maybe he knows?) but to dose himself with something. He is not a man reaching for his lost soul but a machine in search of maintenance. It’s a comedown.
Col. Byer (Norton) & Co. have something going on, like wiping out one program to keep the secret of several similar ones from coming out, or something like that. The overriding plot that ran from movie to movie is mostly left behind (though we do see a video of Joan Allen, and there’s a report that Jason Bourne is “alive and in New York.” Though Gilroy is a clever and resourceful writer, he works with a handicap here. Without Bourne himself on screen (we only see a little photo of a young-looking Damon) and without the intrigue that ran so interestingly from Bourne Identity to Supremacy to Ultimatum, Gilroy is sort of starting from scratch, and Legacy reads not as a driving many-layered story so much as just a series of set pieces, one in Alaska where Cross must face off wolves and predatory drones, another surrounding Dr. Shearing’s roomy old house somewhere near DC with a string of killings and a fire; and finally an undercover plane trip and a frantic search and chase on the road to and in Manila. The final chase and run sequence is strong. But it’s not much different from many others of the genre apart from being conducted among the crowds, waterways, horrible traffic, and folklorically painted vehicles of the Philippines. Shooting in this location must have been a considerable challenge for the filmmakers, but that labour is not passed on to the viewer in terms of unusual thrills. The Bourne Legacy is lively and well made, but conventional and soulless.
As a character, Cross may be a mystery but not a very intriguing one, and he seems to know who he was before he was converted into a 21st-century Bourne-like creature. He can face off against a snarling beast and Parkour his way through rocky Arctic mountains and helter skelter Filipino buildings, and he is a good ID counterfeiter, but he seems to lack the inventiveness and aggression and moral self-questioning of Jason Bourne, not to mention the polyglot international sophistication. It’s a great letdown early on when Cross meets up with an opposite number (Oscar Isaac) at an Alaskan outpost and instead of immediately killing him he shares dinner. When he spends the rest of the movie hunting for the right meds it adds insult to injury.
DIRECTOR: TONY GILROY
WRITERS: TONY GILROY, DAN GILROY
CAST: JEREMY RENNER, RACHEL WEISZ, EDWARD NORTON, DAVID STRATHAIRN
RUNTIME: 135 MINS