Following on from the acclaimed Bourne trilogy is an intimidating prospect. Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum were brilliant, not just because the action was excellently staged but also because of the central journey undertaken by Matt Damon’s character.
Inaugurated by Doug Liman and continued by Paul Greengrass, the Bourne movies were hardwired into our paranoid, cynical age. Let’s not forget, they also caused James Bond to head in a grittier direction with Casino Royale – Daniel Craig’s, bruised, humane interpretation of 007 and the gripping action sequences clearly owed a debt to the series. The mystery as to Jason Bourne’s identity ensured the original trilogy had emotional pathos to go with the technical excellence, and the riddle was brilliantly sustained until the end of Ultimatum, where it received a satisfying conclusion.
Now the screenwriter of the original trilogy, Tony Gilroy, steps into the director’s chair for The Bourne Legacy, not so much a reboot as an expansion of the original Bourne universe. Damon’s Treadstone agent has been replaced with Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, an agent who’s part of a separate operation called Outcome. Cross doesn’t suffer from amnesia but he’s been genetically hardwired and is dependent on pills to sustain his abilities – a new plot development that threatens to push the movie away from recognisable human frailty into Matrix territory.
In a nifty bit of narrative jiggery-pokery, the opening events of Legacy run concurrently with the New York interlude in Ultimatum. The chaos caused by Bourne ignites a firestorm among the CIA top-brass, who realise that his actions have compromised their other operations around the world. New face Edward Norton sums it up best in a terrific speech when he explains that the situation has metastasized and grown infectious. The only way to contain the outbreak, he explains, is to wipe out the remaining Outcome agents around the world. Cross is in the cross-fire but he escapes the assassination attempt and teams up with Rachel Weisz’s distraught scientist who’s barely survived an attempt on her own life.
For a movie which opens with snowbound mountains, the following analogy is perhaps appropriate: if Jason Bourne was the man who caused the avalanche, the new movie focuses on the agent caught up in the debris. And for the first two-thirds of The Bourne Legacy, Gilroy sketches the aftermath with great panache and degree of tension.
He’s clearly a helmer more interested in corporate, boardroom backstabbing than he is with the requisite action set-pieces (although those are staged adequately) and Legacy sets itself up as an edgy, talky follow-on. Given that Gilroy helmed the critically praised corporate thriller Michael Clayton, this is hardly surprising, and he’s confident at pushing a more outwardly political edge (although the first three movies were hardly lacking for that). Hey, in movies, nothing will stand in the way of national security.
The destruction of Outcome is initially chilling, the agency deploying everything from doses of pills to laboratory plants to achieve their goals. The latter is one of the film’s most effective scenes, as great character actor Zeljko Ivanek goes on the rampage slaughtering everyone in Weisz’s laboratory, a brutal scene that pushes the boundaries of the 12A certificate. In the early stages, the movie is very effective at conveying a sense of worldwide destruction.
And then, in the final third, the movie has to start tying up its loose ends, and this is where it starts to lose its nerve. When Renner and Weisz are compelled to travel to Manila (for reasons best left unspoiled), the tension drains out of the drama because the plot device simply isn’t very interesting; certainly not as interesting as a man on the search for himself. The personal edge is lost and things have to wrap up with an overlong and derivative bike chase, brilliantly staged but lukewarm in the wake of the preceding movies.
Ultimately, there’s no sense that the characters are working towards anything dramatic, or that the film itself is working towards a rounded presentation of said characters. Cross simply isn’t as interesting as Bourne, although this isn’t Renner’s fault. He’s a brilliant actor but the script denies him the chance of a personality, or the chance to work towards the sort of cathartic resolution Damon achieved at the end of his three movies. Weisz is terrific as the distraught scientist (how refreshing it is to see a movie depicting a character legitimately freaked out in the wake of a shooting); Norton, Stacy Keach and the rest of the cast playing CIA big cheeses promise much but are ultimately given nothing to do.
At the point where you most want the movie to throw you a curveball, it becomes predictable. To use another ham-fisted metaphor, it ends up resembling one of the many vehicles trashed by Cross on his journey: bits and pieces strewn over a large area which simply don’t add up.