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3 reviews, 19 user ratings
|Bourne Legacy, The
by Brett Gallman
You could do worse than “The Bourne Legacy” when it comes to keeping a franchise on life support; when faced with the absence of both the star and director that guided the it to great heights, it’d be easy to unnaturally prolong it by franchise-tagging a knock-off film and shuttling it straight to video. However, Universal has done quite the opposite by outfitting this spin-off/sequel with arguably the best cast the series has seen and by giving an honest effort to live up to the legacy of the first three films. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s often an admirable effort all the same.The franchise is mostly used as an entry point for this film, which initially functions as a side story to “The Bourne Ultimatum”; as the events in that film work to finally unravel shady U.S. government division Treadstone and its successors, other officials begin scurrying to contain leaks in their own programs. Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) helms Project Outcome, yet another super soldier program operating in the shadows of the CIA. With the fear that the investigation into Treadstone will move sideways onto his own operation, Byer decides to pull the plug immediately by assassinating his own agents in the field.
"Renner was bourne to run."
One of these men is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an operative tucked away on a retreat in Alaska which fortuitously allows him to escape the purge. A familiar series of events unfold as Cross seeks answers with the help of an Outcome doctor (Rachel Weisz) who also narrowly avoids being killed when the insidious plot reaches her office (as is always the case in this series, the cadre behind Outcome is thoroughly ruthless and want to eliminate anyone connected to the program).
That’s a pretty simple setup that ends up feeling a little exhausting since it chews up nearly an hour of screen time just to maneuver us to nearly the same position “The Bourne Identity” did ten years ago. Once that point arrives, “Legacy” does diverge a little bit, almost to the point where the Bourne connection is all but shed. Whereas the original hook involved the search for Bourne’s lost memory, “Legacy” finds his counterpart in search of…meds (or “chems” as they’re called maybe two dozen times during the course of the movie).
Though this thankfully creates a different dynamic from the first three films, it feels a little too small and intimate, even for this series, which has eschewed the high adventure of many fellow espionage thrillers, preferring instead to take the form of “Manchurian Candidate” style political thrillers, and “Legacy” is no different. When Byer refers to the investigation of Treadstone as a virus that may have spread to other bodies, he perhaps subtly prefigures how “The Bourne Legacy” turns into something of a medical thriller.
The same post-9-11 moral ambivalence and “man on the run from Big Brother” elements guide the action, but the kernel of “The Bourne Legacy” gets back to the relative smallness of the first film; instead of toppling or exposing Outcome, Cross is just trying to outrun it and reckon with the changes they’ve made to his physiology. Even the contrast in locales reveals the shift in scope; though the film jaunts all over the world in brief bursts, much of the action is situated in rural Maryland, a far cry from the exotic cityscapes previously glimpsed in this series.
Eventually, the most sustained story emerges once Renner and Weisz hook up and peddle the film to a higher gear. Cross is similarly fraught with a bit of an identity crisis, only he knows who he used to be--and he doesn’t want to be that person anymore, as he was a bit of a flunky whose IQ has been artificially enhanced by Outcome. Without treatment, his mind will degrade, and it’s a solid hook even if the film borders on being a little listless as it finally comes into focus. Once it does, it’s workable since Renner and Weisz are a capable duo who immediately inject gravitas to the proceedings.
In a wise move, Cross is not just a Bourne clone. Damon was understandably robotic in the role of an amnesiac whose brain had been re-wired to the point of detachment; there was a cold distance to Bourne that defined that character and made him a logical Bush-era hero: a man stripped of his morality and empathy by the government that created him, he had to work not only to recover his identity, but also his humanity. The same is not true of Aaron Cross; even though he’s introduced in a snowy, Jack London style tableau, surrounded by the wilderness and wolves, he’s a little bit warmer than his predecessor. He even seems different from a fellow agent that he encounters up in Alaska; whereas that guy’s a little spooked and taciturn, Renner has a cool confidence about him, and his rapport with Weisz is marked by levity and some slight hints of humor. Cross is more fun and relatable than Jason Bourne, even if he is essentially a science experiment gifted with superhuman abilities, and Renner’s magnetic enough to shoulder this film and franchise.
Bourne and Cross are comparable in terms of sheer ferocity; from the moment he’s first glimpsed emerging from an icy lake, Cross is infused with a calculating feral quality, and “The Bourne Legacy” is often a reflection of its protagonist. Like previous films in the franchise, it refuses relentless action in favor of a more measured tack. There’s a lot of desk jockeying and gabbing in the glow of computer monitors that are occasionally punctuated by fisticuffs and chases. One can probably count the pure action sequences on one hand, and some of them, such as Renner’s encounter with a pack of wolves (it’s been a good year at the movies for wolf-wrestling enthusiasts), are short but impacting.
Tony Gilroy takes over the director’s chair after writing the first three films and does a pretty decent Paul Greengrass impersonation. His camera doesn’t seem to be quite as jittery or antsy as Greengrass’s, but the action sequences are still the type that are mostly felt more than seen. Maybe the approach has engendered a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, but it didn’t seem too distracting here. Gilroy might simply be more adept than other imitators because he still retains a clear sense of movement during the fistfights instead of simply shaking the camera to create disorientation. A couple of nicely fluid sequences, including a small-scale raid on a house by Cross, provide a nice change of pace and hint that the series could move beyond the Greengrass aesthetic if someone would commit to it.
The climactic motorcycle chase doesn’t fare quite as well, and by that time the film’s lapsed into retreading expected Bourne beats when a killing machine from yet another agency is dispatched to eliminate Cross. This is one thing this series has never quite nailed down because it hasn’t bothered to craft a yin to Bourne’s yang in terms of field agents. Clive Owen’s ruminative assassin is the closest it’s come, and the curve has deteriorated from Karl Urban to increasingly faceless, vanilla plot devices.
Technically, the real villains have always been holed up in Washington anyway, and Edward Norton is a fine choice to take over that mantle from Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Albert Finney. His Byer might be the most intriguing villain yet because he’s not played as one; Byer makes no qualms about his actions, confronting their immorality head-on and insisting that they’re driven by patriotism and necessity. What’s sinister about this guy is how much sense he sometimes makes, and his menace is pillowed by his own personal stakes as Cross’s former commanding officer (as revealed in a flashback that unfortunately represents the only time he shares the screen with Renner).
It’s just too bad he feels so remote from everything since he spends most of the time barking orders from command rooms and being reactive. He’s assisted by Stacy Keach who does much of the same thing; likewise, Weisz plays damsel in distress a lot, and some leftover cast from the previous film are dutifully trotted out to make the franchise connection.
On that note, “The Bourne Legacy” has its own bouts of schizophrenia towards the end, especially when it returns to a subplot whose epilogue feels like it wandered in from the cutting room floor of “The Bourne Ultimatum.” After the touch-and-go introduction that’s still tethered to the previous film, “Legacy” spends most of its time doing its own thing until it suddenly feels compelled to remind you of its heritage. Once it concludes, it feels a bit confused, as it’s both a clean break and a direct continuation, with the fallout from “Ultimatum” polluting the narrative thrust of “Legacy.” While the looming presence of the greater conspiracy and events from that film brings a bit of needed heft since the main through-line feels so small, it ultimately feels better suited for an actual follow-up rather than the soft reboot this film often represents.
Perhaps because of this, “The Bourne Legacy” feels like both the most threadbare and most bloated film in the series all at once; when stripped of its ties to previous movies, it’d probably make for a lean 105 minute thriller, whereas it lurches here to the finish line after a leisurely 135 minutes that often amble by (Greengrass’s frantic, paranoiac sense of pacing is especially missed). Even with such girth, the film might leave you grasping for a point since it ends up feeling like the pilot for a new spin-off series that’s mostly meant to introduce us to a new set of characters.In that respect, the film justifies itself since it adequately proves that the series can move on without Damon and Greengrass, even if “Legacy” isn’t always sure of that itself. Gilroy can’t keep it from falling into the franchise trap of acting more of a stopgap and an extended prologue for more movies, but he crafts the film with an exactness and care that eludes a lot of similar cash-ins. If the goal was to simply leave the legacy untarnished and keep the seat warm, then it’s a success, albeit not a thoroughly rousing one.
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originally posted: 08/10/12 12:17:24