Note: I was out of town during the critics screenings of The Bourne Legacy. Alan Pyke was kind enough to review it for me.
By Alan Pyke
Making a decent fourth Bourne movie is a large lift, but not because franchise star Matt Damon wanted out. The Robert Ludlum books are kind of a mess even by spy fiction’s serpentine standards, to say nothing of the Eric Van Lustbader sequels, and the original trilogy of films set a high bar. The Bourne Legacy clears it, though, with room to spare.
I went into the Tony Gilroy adaptation of the fourth book expecting very little, as you may be. But the fourth installation delivers, with compelling photography, tense choreography, and solid performances from Rachel Weisz and Jeremy Renner (as a brand-new uber spy, not an attempt to reboot Jason Bourne). The basics are familiar: One member of an elite, biochemically engineered corp of barely-authorized government spooks has gone off the program, and the shadowy officials who created him determine to get rid of him. But where the Jason Bourne character was made sympathetic through his attempts to clarify his amnesia and hitman’s guilt, Renner’s Aaron Cross is simply presented as savvy enough to escape the termination of the program that created him. We root for Cross only because he’s being targeted by irresponsible bureaucrats because his usefulness no longer exceeds his threat to their position.
Renner starts off tangling with wolves and drones in the Alaskan mountains, and it takes him awhile to get linked up with Weisz’s willfully-ignorant-of-her-work’s-implications scientist. Weisz’s life has just been torn apart by a coworker’s psychotic break (Zeljko Ivanec of Damages and Heroes fame). Renner’s arrival should be just the latest in a chain of pathologically violent controlling forces in her life, but this is a movie, and Renner’s spy is more interested in escape than revenge, so things move in a more predictable direction. But Gilroy doesn’t put his two lovely leads in bed, or even (hardly) in longing eye contact. That’s a saving grace, but also probably born of necessity. The centerpiece here is Renner turning his mental and physical prowess against the paper-pusher spies (led by Ed Norton) who created him.
It’s a hell of a centerpiece. Gilroy shoots the fight scenes in the often-frustrating close-in style of the latter two Damon flicks in this series, but the camera seems to have taken a crucial half-step back. There’s a balance between the digestibility of the movements that made the first Bourne flick so fun, and the crunching kinetics of the Paul Greengrass followups. Renner acts with the same economy of motion that made Damon’s Bourne so fun to watch, and the camera lets you enjoy his precision without letting you voyeurize it. (Damon also pops up– Gilroy smartly layers in snippets of the third flick, to show that we’re operating on a familiar time frame but in a deeper corner of the spookocracy.)
Some of this summer’s blockbusters have traded too cheaply on videogame ideas, but when Gilroy shows Renner scaling a building like an Assassin’s Creed character, he doesn’t gussy it up with camera movement. The intricacy in The Bourne Legacy’s setpieces is all in the choreography and the bodies, not the editing bay and the booms. The fights are fun, vicious stuff, but it’s the climactic chase scene in Manila that earns the movie its stripes. A new, improved version of super-spy is dispatched to finish the job the Manila cops are failing to do. The scene builds from quiet evasion, to rooftop footwork, to a vehicle chase that is both exhilarating and, for Weisz’s character, empowering. (It’s also got a dirtbike Smith Grind, which is pretty sweet.) The Mini Cooper chase in the first Bourne movie was one of the best pursuit scenes in a decade of action movies, and the climax of this fourth installation is a more than worthy successor.
Gilroy doesn’t bother exploring Cross’s roots or his complicity in the evils of the Blackbriar program of chemical engineering. “Sin eaters,” Norton’s spymaster says to Cross in a flashback. “That’s the job.” And that’s the extent of the moral spelunking. The omission suggests a direction for any further sequels, should Legacy do well enough at the box office, but if they’re not going to leave the stage while folks are still clapping, they should at least recognize that the future of this franchise is in its fists and tires, not its synapses. If the lack of meditation over the meaning of our any-costs national security apparatus sounds frustrating, consider that this thematic ground was well covered in the original trilogy. Rather than retread the guilt and amnesia stories, The Bourne Legacy hints at them while delivering the ass-kicking, hot-pursuit goods.