Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass wanted a break from all of the mind-bending espionage following the success of 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum." They felt the action trilogy had run its course. Time to move on.
Universal Pictures didn't share their sentiments. One could hardly blame them. After pulling in almost $1 billion at the worldwide box office, the series of movies based loosely on Robert Ludlum's novels had proved to be a cinematic juggernaut. The trilogy was the rare box-office bonanza not based on a comic book or young-adult novel or rendered through the magic of Pixar's animation.
With Damon and Greengrass out, the studio turned to the man who served as the architect for much of the Bourne narrative. Tony Gilroy, who penned the first three installments of the franchise, came on board to write (along with his brother Dan) and direct "The Bourne Legacy."
In Damon's place was ascendant star Jeremy Renner, who broke out with consecutive Oscar-nominated turns in "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town."
Instead of taking the "007" route and asking moviegoers to accept a new actor in the role of their beloved protagonist, Gilroy decided to create a new character to revitalize the franchise.
Aaron Cross has no direct relation to Damon's character, but like Bourne, he is a member of a covert special operations teams, here called Outcome. We meet the diminutive but muscular Cross as he trains in the wintry wilds of Alaska, killing his food and bounding about the icy cliffs. His vague purpose comes into more stark relief during cut-aways to back-room dealings in Washington.
A British newspaper reporter has pieced together Bourne's involvement with the Treadstone operation, and government officials, fearful that the light shone on Treadstone will also engulf Outcome, decide to kill the program's members.
Gilroy seamlessly incorporates the cross-over from the previous Bourne film, helping to give context to "Legacy." Throughout the film, small traces of the Bourne story appear, giving the sense that Bourne's denouement overlaps with the building drama that has engulfed Cross.
But the puppet masters of immorality and their foot soldiers are not the only people involved in this clandestine mess. A group of scientists have bio-engineered human genomes to make the Outcome soldiers superhuman. They administer pills to Cross and his anonymous peers that make them more intelligent, more perceptive and more athletic.
Among the doctors is Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a calm woman of purpose who, unaware of the moral ambiguities resulting from her work, sees the genome project as groundbreaking and historic. When one of her colleagues goes on a murderous rampage — in a disturbing and timely scene that should have earned the film an "R" rating — Shearing realizes that her work may not be so benign.
Though he avoids the government's first attempt to eliminate him, Cross has run low on the pills that give him his uncanny powers. His frantic need for the pills, like a superhero with a meth addiction, leads him to Shearing.
Convinced her life is in danger due to her implication in Outcome, Shearing reluctantly agrees to join Cross, who has inexplicably swept in out of nowhere to save her from harm. Renner's hand-to-hand skills are not called upon as often as Damon's were, but the actor brings a rabid but taut pit-bull-like energy to his fight scenes.
Shearing tells Cross that she may be able to infect him with a virus that will make the need for pills unnecessary, but the solution demands a trip to a government-controlled medical facility in the Philippines.
On the run from local authorities and narrowly outwitting the long arm of the U.S. government, as orchestrated by a steely, gray-tinged Col. Eric Byer, USAF (Edward Norton), Cross and Shearing team to save their lives in an exhilarating series of action set pieces.
Unlike the previous Bourne films, Gilroy, who directed the brilliant suspense film "Michael Clayton," takes a much more measured approach. High-paced action scenes are used more sparingly, and the camera work, under the guiding hand of Paul Thomas Anderson's frequent cinematographer, Robert Elswit, is less kinetic and jarring.
That is not to say the movie is tame. The film's final chase involves all manner of automotive transport and thrills with an alluring frenzy more captivating than any such sequence in recent memory.
It is refreshing to see a character actor such as Renner play leading man. Though a somewhat familiar face, the luster of Renner's stardom does not seep into the world of his character. His face is an odd mixture of mournful basset hound, all droopy cheeks and soulful eyes, and wiley rat, pinched and mischievous. His Cross comes across as a reformed bad boy, the kind of teen who used to start fires in the woods before he discovered Kafka.
The script would have been stronger if it fleshed out more of the spurned soldier's backstory, which is more or less relegated to a few unbelievable scenes. We get to know Cross mostly in the early scenes, before the pace quickens and his dialogue shrinks, an unfortunate occurrence given Renner's superb and nuanced acting chops.
Renner has a nice ease with Weisz, who transforms with subtle ease from mild-mannered doctor to heroic attaché. The movie falls into the tired trap of man-rescues-woman, woman-assists-injured-hero before hero saves the day, but the action always feels vital.
The previous films used Bourne's amnesia to help piece together and mirror the Rubik's-cube-like story, as the audience and Bourne simultaneously became aware of the truth. The narrative here is more black-and-white. Cross needs to reach a destination in order to, hopefully, save his life. The approach gives the film a more defined path that will limit audience confusion, but the idea of a soldier needing pills to stay superhuman or risk becoming a flabby moron seems like something pulled from a silly 1970s science-fiction TV show.
Still, "Legacy" has enough going on underneath its main plot to stay engaging without sermonizing. Once again moral ambiguity serves as a major theme in the film that echoes many modern concerns, from drone warfare to the role of journalism. Government is portrayed as a shadowy organization with too many high-clearance cooks in the kitchen, who tell themselves that they have, as Byer states, "the strength to do what is necessary." If this means innocent people die, so be it. The layers of surveillance and data gathering have become something of rote espionage storytelling, but the incorporation of advanced bio-engineering gives the film a new wrinkle.
On the strength of its leading man and the whispered sex appeal he shares with Weisz, Gilroy has crafted a thrilling new beginning to a tale that seemed to have come to its logical conclusion.