The chase continues: “The Bourne Legacy”

August 20, 2012

Okay, so next up we have The Bourne Legacy, the second franchise that has been handed over to Jeremy Renner to run with (after last fall’s Mission: Impossible 4guess Tom needed more time for that last-ditch brainwashing effort on Katie). As cautious as I was to see the Bourne story continue beyond what seemed to be a decent and self-contained trilogy, those movies have been consistently good, and Renner is a capable and charismatic lead, so I went in with guarded optimism. That’s why it gives me no pleasure to say that The Bourne Legacy is a bit of a dud. It’s easily the weakest of the four films, and for the first time presents a Bourne movie that’s actually slow.

This installment was directed by Tony Gilroy—who also wrote the previous installments—and as such he starts out on a promising note. Rather than try and work in some kind of bait-and-switch (“We need Jason Bourne, but he’s not answering the Bourne signal!” “That’s okay. We’ve got Aaron Cross, and he’s the new model cool!”), Gilroy sets Legacy more or less concurrent to The Bourne Ultimatum, so we see the collateral fallout from the events of that film. It’s a clever bit of screenwriting.

So, while Bourne is Bourning it up in Ultimatum, we follow two other government apparatchiks (played by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach) as they fret over the potential discovery of the Treadstone project. Gilroy shows us a bit more of the project here, explaining that many of the operatives’ super skills come from a drug regimen that enhance their physical and mental abilities. So far it’s been a great success, but now, with Congress snooping around, Norton decides to burn it to the ground and salt the earth.

For most of the operatives (and we see them in action around the world) it’s a simple matter of switching their drugs with poison. Unfortunately, one of their guys—the aforementioned Aaron Cross—is on a survival exercise in Alaska. He’s out of meds anyway, so they just send a drone after him. Well, this kinda pisses off Cross, so he returns to the US intent on restocking his supply of meds and getting the hell out of Dodge.

To that end, he tracks down Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz)–one of the docs Cross remembers as overseeing his medical trials. Unbeknownst to him, Shearing has also been attacked in the scorched earth initiative (in a truly riveting piece of filmmaking), and has Norton and Co’s goons closing in on her.

On top of that, Cross is out of his meds, and beginning to go through withdrawal. Since, as he points out to Shearing, the Army recruiter had to add eleven points to his IQ for him to make the minimum requirements to be buck private, “it’s a long fall.” So, the movie also has a Flowers for Algernon thing going. Shearing and Cross set out for Manila, where the drugs are manufactured, so she can viral load the enhancements into Cross’s system and make them permanent.

The big problem is that we have three plot lines going here that only intersect in the last third or so of the movie. The Bourne films were basically bullet-trains that cutaway every so often to Bourne’s antagonists. With this one, our hero is offscreen for long stretches of time. Consequently, the movie lacks the urgency and momentum of the rest of the Bourne movies.

The other problem is the impersonal nature of the story. The Bourne trilogy was about Jason Bourne’s identity—doesn’t get much more personal than that. But in Legacy, Cross and Shearing are simply racing to accomplish their own ends and escape the threat against them that has suddenly materialized. Unlike Bourne, they have no interest in confronting it, understanding it, or defeating it. Best illustration of this is the fact that the evil cabal and Cross never share a scene. Compare that to Bourne confronting Chris Cooper in Identity, Brian Cox in Supremacy, and Albert Finney in Ultimatum.

Further hobbling the film is a serious lack of action sequences. There is the aforementioned scene, and a bravura chase sequence that caps the film, but precious little else. And the movie spends too much time in dull locations. Until it goes to the Philippines, we’re stuck moping around Alaska and DC. Bourne movies have always been travelogues–that’s half the fun. Alaska is not an interesting, exotic locale. It doesn’t help that Cross is stalked by a wolf for much of the Alaska sequence, though it earns points for having Cross blow the thing up with a Hellfire missile (which is more badass than anything Sarah Palin did). As a director, Gilroy is loathe to cut down any of his scenes, and as a result they drag on too long and sap much of the energy from the film.

None of this is the fault of the cast, who are uniformly great. They’re just stuck in a poorly-crafted thriller. Renner continues to be a winning presence on screen, but has been handed a less-compelling character. Weisz is fine, but she and Renner lack the chemistry of Matt Damon and Franka Potente. She, too, is hamstrung by a character who is shell-shocked for much of the film. Norton and Keach are both great as the bloodless government types, but if you can figure out who they are and where they fit on the food chain, you’re a better man than I am.

Pity, since the Bourne movies were pretty much the gold-standard  when it came to thrillers. Maybe they can pull it out in future installments. Really, all they need is a tighter script and a different director. Whether the franchise will endure long enough to let Renner run with it or not remains to be seen.

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