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.)