[10 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When it was announced that neither director Paul Greengrass nor star Matt Damon would be willing to work on a fourth installment of the hugely successful Bourne franchise they contributed to and helped foster, fans and skeptics both wondered what would happen to the post-modern spy thriller series. Through three films (the first was helmed by Doug Liman) and millions of dollars at the box office, audiences enjoyed some smart, techno-savvy action meshed to the almost DOA shaky-cam, ‘you are there’ filmmaking technique. Never letting an uncollected dollar lie around, however, Hollywood has decided to “reboot” the cash cow, finding an ancillary storyline to take the set-up in a similar yet supposedly new direction. If dull and lifeless was the path planned, the suits have succeeded in genetically altered black ops agent spades.
With Jason Bourne arriving in New York to blow the lid off the entire Blackbrier/Treadstone debacle, various upper level members of the US government’s espionage agencies are scrambling to start damage control. This means getting rid of the rest of the test subjects from that ‘super soldier’ experiment and covering their ass/tracks ASAP. While Eric Byer (Edward Norton) plots with Mark Turso (Stacey Keach) over how to handle the mess, a lone agent named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) survives a stint in the Alaskan wilderness, only to discover he’s now a target for termination. Escaping back to the mainland, he hooks up with researcher Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) to discover the truth behind his chemical alterations. Of course, assassins are hot on their trail, hoping to keep a lid on things…permanently.
For the first hour or so, The Bourne Legacy is like a group of ad men trying to come up with a convincing campaign to sell sheep dip to wary, but otherwise easily gullible consumers. It’s all talk and scientifically stunted speechifying, actors throwing around bureaucratic spy babbling like double agents with Tourettes. Sure, some of this is necessary. When Damon’s Jason Bourne came back in the third installment to “kill” these programs once and for all, it looked like he had finally succeeded. Now, co-writer/director Tony Gilroy has to find a way around such finality, and his solution involves lots of button down bravura and graying guys spouting nonsense. Apparently, nothing happens in DC without a significant amount of chatter. In the meantime, Renner is reduced to running through the snow. It takes an entire hour before his character really breaks out into Bourne mode.
By then, most of the audience will be lost, while the rest will hope for a few splashy stunt setpieces to reward their patience. Sadly, even those are few and far between. The Bourne Legacy is not really interested in playing to the edge of your seat. There’s a nifty encounter between Cross, Dr. Shearing, and a group of “grief counselors” (read: really bad people) in a dilapidated old house and a fantastic car/motorcycle chase which closes the film. In between , we get a couple of fist fights and a roof run. That’s it. In the span of 65 minutes, we are treated to about four action scenes, and that’s it. Gone is the jittery, nausea inducing style that Greengrass has lived off of for the last decade. In its place is Gilroy falling in love with his words, followed by some well crafted, if sporadic, chaos.
The problem becomes one of momentum. When Damon and the gang attacked this topic, they were like a laser guided missile released from its silo. Even the moments of exposition felt rushed and ready to explode. In Legacy, we get so much baffling backstory (and biting) that it drags everything down. Renner could be battling a bunch of wolves ala The Grey and the film goes back to Norton and Keach getting all flustered. Cameos and clips from the previous installments are inserted to connect everything together, and there is definitely enough narrative here to support another Renner-based trilogy, but Legacy is lacking the one thing that mandates another visit: investment. There was just something about Jason Bourne. We wanted to see him succeed. Aaron Cross? Not so much.
Still, this is a polished and professional effort, something the over 50 crowd can cotton too without feeling overwhelmed by artistic approach or ADD-inspired editing. Gilroy gives everyone ample time to vamp and earn their ample paychecks. Hopefully, Norton and Keach got paid by the word. As for Renner and Weisz, they lack any real interpersonal chemistry, though the narrative never ventures into the territory of romance. Instead, both are seen as competent and capable - he physically and she scientifically. They make an interesting team, if not for the fact that, once on the run, they are given very little to do. Even when they are moving through the back alleys of Manila, they appear too sharp, too ready for what the script has in store for them.
As a result, we never really fear for their lives, understanding that Hollywood has plans for these characters and this presold side project. We know who will take the fall for all this high tech treason, and we don’t really care. Instead, we feel forced into finding something to stay with - a subplot, a side character - anything to keep from the preprogrammed feel of the entire experience. In fact, what The Bourne Legacy ultimately lacks is a feeling of suspense…or surprise. It goes where we expect it to go, settles its various issues in ways we can both acknowledge and accept. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing novel or new.
Gilroy gets credit for taking on the near impossible task of reestablishing a property missing the two main ingredients that made it memorable in the first place. He tries, and perhaps will succeed, once the shock has worn off. What he can’t battle is the ennui this first film creates. We come looking for bravado and butt kicking. With The Bourne Legacy, we end up with little more than dialogue and discussion.