I don’t think they are ever going to let poor Jason Bourne rest in peace.
No, I’m not talking about Treadstone or Black Briar or even those nefarious government heads in the control rooms. It’s Universal and their studio execs who won’t allow their box office hero a slide into blissful anonymity. Bourne and Matt Damon, the actor who played him, sit just beyond the edges of The Bourne Legacy, haunting almost every other frame with their memory. Granted, Damon doesn’t actually make an appearance in the new film, but there are enough flashbacks, cameos and name-drops that the audience can never go very long without being blatantly reminded of him.
With the first three films in the franchise, writer Tony Gilroy successfully pushed the story beyond the world of Robert Ludlum’s novels. Also taking over directorial duties for Legacy, Gilroy continues that exodus here, edging the franchise gently towards understated science fiction. The new breed of soldier-spies that follow Jason Bourne were built not by merciless training, but by enhanced pharmaceuticals. These pills are simply referred to as ‘chems’ in the film and they possess the ability to amp-up or tear-down an individual’s aptitude, depending on the dosage and regularity.
The new film opens with agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), in the midst of a serious training mission, forced to locate and ingest some of these pills to retain the preternatural intelligence they have endowed him with. Lose the regular regiment of chems, and Cross will return to the dull blade he used to be, without an IQ high enough to even qualify for military service. Unlike Bourne, who was a blank slate seeking out those who made him, Cross is completely perceptive of his abilities and where they come from. When Bourne’s antics from Ultimatum throw the project into disarray and Treadstone’s practices into public spotlight, operator Eric Byer (Edward Norton) rushes around trying to destroy the remaining vestiges of the program.
Of course, Cross falls right at the center of the evidence that needs erasing, and he’s on the move to find more of the chems before he pulls his own action-movie version of Flowers for Algernon, melting back into a low-functioning meat-head. As Byers sends out drones to dispatch him, Cross tracks down Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who can help Cross kick the meds and retain his borrowed prowess.
A constant comparison to what came before hampers Legacy and prevents it from establishing a fresh new rhythm and identity. Renner makes a strong and effective presence as Cross, and he ably replaces Damon as magnetic center. Cross is a very different sort of entity than Jason Bourne, and Renner’s world-weary vigor is in direct contrast to Damon’s wide-eyed amnesiac who slowly remembered he was an assassin. Weisz’s doctor is asked to spew some senseless medical jargon but once she’s threatened, this usually reserved actress is jumping through all the same dangerous hoops Renner flings himself through. Weisz is a long way from the early days of the Mummy films, but she demonstrates a similarly compelling physical energy here. Ed Norton and Stacy Keach are reasonable bad-guy replacements for the likes of Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and David Straithairn, who returns here with Joan Allen and Albert Finney.
As a director Gilroy channels both Identity’s Doug Liman and Supremacy/Ultimatum’s Paul Greengrass. The glossy, globe-trotting aesthetic of Identity is well aped early on, but this movie isn’t as fresh or as brisk as that one, and Liman made the pacing its own beguiling character, while Greengrass’ emotional impact is absent in the erratic camerawork Gilroy serves up here. There aren’t many action scenes, but the ones that do appear feel a bit telegraphed and perfunctory, and the final chase is so chaotic that it obliterates any sense of geography or coherent design.
Like last week’s Total Recall, it’s a serviceable action film that doesn’t provide any delight or real reason for being. I wasn’t a huge fan of the second and third Bourne films, but they were so precisely calibrated that they felt like follow-up chapters in an airport thriller, driven forward by Damon’s performance and a desire to see where Bourne’s story was leading. There’s no such mystery with Cross, as he just wants the meds so he can retain his way of life. It’s a more reserved and limited approach, appropriate as recession mythology but less textured than the post-911 moralizing of Supremacy and Ultimatum. Legacy serves its purpose in expanding and opening up the world of the previous three movies, but what it fails to do is give audiences adequate reason to indulge its effort.
Fun in fits and starts,The Bourne Legacy never comes into its own. By the time Moby’s Extreme Ways starts playing over the end credits (as it did the first time through), its clear that Legacy isn’t a free agent.