Next Generation, by David Bax
When Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity opened in 2002, coming in a distant second to Scooby-Doo, it quietly began a new and exciting subset of action/thrillers. Paul Greengrass’ two subsequent sequels (The Bourne Supremacy in 2004 and The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007) further solidified the handheld whip-pan and quick, crunching stunt approach. 2002 also saw the release of Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as James Bond and a film that was largely decried as bloated and preposterous, a sign that the franchise had become stale. When Bond was rebooted in 2006’s Casino Royale with Daniel Craig in the role, it was done so in the image of the Jason Bourne films. Or so I’m told. I don’t, as a rule, watch James Bond movies, mostly due to the aforementioned preposterous bloat.
Since the original trilogy put a nice capper on Bourne’s tale of rediscovery and redemption and since Matt Damon proved reluctant to revisit the role, the studio has decided to branch out the property with The Bourne Legacy, a new tale set in the same universe of brainwashed assassins and calculating bureaucrats that does not contain the man himself. In so doing, the franchise risks becoming what it once unseated, a tentpole formula with a withering tether to the real world.
Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, a CIA Operative trained in a program similar to the Treadstone project that produced Jason Bourne. As a result of Bourne’s actions in the previous film, at least part of which takes place concurrent to the events in Legacy, the agency has to “tear down” Cross’s program, which not only means that a lot of paper is about to be shredded but that Cross and all the others like him have to be done away with. Cross manages to escape his fate but, low on the medications necessary as a result of his conditioning, he teams up with a CIA-contracted doctor named Marta (Rachel Weisz). The government keeps trying to kill him and there you have your movie.
In addition to the incidents that incite the attempted murder of Cross, there are multiple references to the events of the Damon trilogy. Strangely, though, they have little to nothing to do with this film’s central plot. It’s an odd feeling when the movie pauses occasionally to briefly pick up the story from Ultimatum. Edward Norton, as the man overseeing Cross’s program, is the screenplay’s sporadically successful attempt at bridging the two pieces.
Norton (along with Renner and Weisz, of course) is proof that The Bourne Legacy is admirably committed to maintaining the generally prestigious aura of its predecessors. In addition to the three leads, Stacy Keach and Zeljko Ivanek lend a hand to the cast that goes on to include returning franchise players Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, David Strathairn and Joan Allen. Presumably, something unspeakable has befallen Julia Stiles’ character since the last film.
Behind the camera is a collection of equally impressive talent. Tony Gilroy, who was a writer on all three earlier films returns to both pen and direct this entry. Meanwhile, the enormously talented Robert Elswit and James Newton Howard take over cinematography and scoring duties, respectively.
Of course, as referenced above, the main connection between Legacy and the previous installments is the style of action and the way the film oscillates from fistfights and chases on one end to tense, clandestine meetings back at Langley (or wherever) on the other. The degree to which you enjoy the film’s many thrilling, propulsive fight scenes will depend on how you felt about those in Greengrass’ films. The overall approach is the same, relying mostly on real-life stunts and quick camera moves and editing. But the action is a bit more coherent here, recalling Liman’s film sometimes more so than its sequels.
In many ways, though, Gilroy’s dialing back of Greengrass’ aesthetic is problematic. Greengrass’ hyper-verite approach was rather adept at masking the clunkier elements of the dialogue. When the proceedings look more like a movie, you begin to realize how often these characters talk like they’re in a movie.
Still, a movie is exactly what we’ve come to see. In all the most important ways – visceral action, hold-your-breath suspense, shady intrigue – the film more than delivers. Yet you’ll start to notice that the movie-ness has taken root in the franchise in the exact ways it initially upended. For all its fun, The Bourne Legacy feels less like another chapter in a singular story and more like this year’s (also competent) Safe House, an action movie fulfilling the expectations of a familiar subgenre type.