Rumpled bureaucrats stand around a cramped room, surrounded by state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, barking orders at the underlings and whispering tensely among themselves as they watch a muscular super-agent and his female companion out-gun, out-run, out-fight and out-think them at every turn.
Where else could we be but Bourne again? (Sorry.)
Yes, that’s right, the lucrative franchise, loosely adapted from Robert Ludlum’s novels, that closed out its initial trilogy with (the now inappropriately titled) Bourne Ultimatum (2006) is back. The hooks for The Bourne Legacy are a mostly new cast, including lead actor, the screenwriter of all four taking over directing chores as well, and that other than the occasional photo, there’s not an actual Bourne in sight.
In other words, it’s been re-Bourne. And naturally, as a critic, I saw Bourne free. And yes, I have a million more of these, but wait, wait, don’t go, I’ll stop for now, because I know my editor will just try to top me with the headline anyway, and besides… it’s Smackdown time! We pit the newbie against the one that started it all, The Bourne Identity (2002), and we’ll do what we can to ensure that you don’t find it Bourne.
So when last we left our hero, expert CIA assassin Jason Bourne, he was intent on exposing the secret government program that spent the last three movies trying to eradicate him. This puts a different program — one that involves using experimental candy-colored “chems” to enhance the agents’ physical and mental prowess (yes, we’re bordering on superhero territory here, but just go with it) — in jeopardy, so Ed Norton, doing his usual weaselly jerk bit, decides he has no choice but to have everyone involved with the program killed.
Unfortunately for him, its two most physically adept and attractive participants, field agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) and scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), manage to survive long enough to team up and lead their would-be assassins on a no-holds-barred parkour-and-motorcycle chase through Manila for… eh, does it really matter?
What it comes down to is: Handsome, muscular guy runs, shoots, drives and fights his way through a needlessly complicated plot, while terrific character actors are reduced to watching the action unfold on monitors, sweating and knitting their brows over what will happen “if this all goes sideways.” (Among them this time around, in addition to Norton: Donna Murphy, Dennis Boutsikaris and Stacy Keach).
An American we’ll call “Jason Bourne” (Matt Damon) is found by a fishing crew floating unconscious in the ocean somewhere off Europe, bleeding from bullet wounds. He has no memory of his identity (the movie’s title is a bit of a spoiler) or how he got there, but a laser pointer embedded in his hip directs him to a safety deposit box in Switzerland, and the quest begins.
The box’s contents — documents for multiple identities, big stacks of money, and a gun –- clearly indicate that he’s no mere tourist, and he’s even more startled to unwittingly discover that he’s trained enough in martial arts to take down two armed cops without breaking a sweat.
After an even more impressive confrontation at the American Consulate, he recruits sweet civilian Marie Kreutz (the invaluable Franka Potente) to drive him to Paris. As their romance blossoms, their movements are being tracked by his employers at Langley who, having realized that he’s aborted the covert mission he’d been sent on, have decided to fire him the hard way. Lots of chases, car crashes and general ass-kicking ensue.
Is it sacrilege to admit never having been all that enchanted by the Bourne franchise? All three entries in the initial trilogy were competently made(Identity by Doug Liman, Supremacy and Ultimatum by the more chaotic, handheld-cam whiz, Paul Greengrass) chase-and-shoot flicks that seemed determined to convince us they were smarter and more complex then they were. They were basically James Bond movies without the megalomaniac villains, supermodel sexpots and funky gadgets. The acting and technical credits were above average for the genre, but I found them all fairly indistinguishable from each other and instantly forgettable, and revisiting Identity after ten years did little to change that.
So I approached The Bourne Legacy with neither gleeful anticipation nor concern over a masterpiece being defaced, but mainly intrigue at the prospect of the suddenly ubiquitous Jeremy Renner at its center, and the directing reins being taken by Tony Gilroy, writer of the entire first trilogy (and this one, with his brother Dan) as well as writer-director of the uncommonly smart Michael Clayton (2007) and the surprisingly fun Duplicity (2009). So I take no pleasure in reporting that for all its personnel shifts and replacements, the new-Bourne (sorry again) is essentially more of the same.
I count exactly one story element that sets it apart from the others, though it’s a doozy: an extended set-piece depicting a seemingly good-natured scientist going on a murderous shooting rampage (ordered to go? programmed? it’s never quite clear) through his lab. Gilroy gives the sequence a cold, ultra-realist feel that is effectively chilling but so jarringly unsettling (particularly in the wake of recent headlines) that it takes us right out of the movie. For better or worse, it’s like nothing else in the entire franchise.
That anomaly aside, the film stacks up quite respectably against its predecessors, with an equally strong cast, slam-bang action set-pieces (particularly the extended, over-the-top climactic sequence), and nice chemistry between its two leads (though damn, I miss Potente). I’ve heard others gripe that Renner, good as he is, simply doesn’t have Damon’s star power, but I disagree, having been a huge fan of Renner’s since he was so memorably creepy in the little-seen gem Dahmer (2002).
The difference is the amnesia angle that Damon’s Bourne had through all three previous movies. We were his companions on his quest for his identity, in that we rarely knew more -– or less — about Bourne than Bourne himself did. Renner’s Cross has no such existential goal, and no such vulnerability; he’s just a really strong, athletic guy who’s trying to get hold of the drugs that helped make him that way. We know nothing about him beyond seeing in scene after scene that there’s pretty much nothing he can’t do, except, apparently, smile.
For that reason alone, the edge goes to The Bourne Identity, but it’s an extremely slight one. If you’re a fan of these movies, or just in the mood for a solidly made, superhero-less thriller, Legacy will probably satisfy. If Michael Clayton and Dahmer were more up your alley, it’s entirely missable. The long and short of it is that despite the potentially intriguing switch in director and star, Bourne… is still-Bourne.