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Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

There’s nothing wrong with “The Bourne Legacy” that a title change wouldn’t fix.

The successful “Bourne” trilogy featured Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, an amnesiac spy who uncovered the truth about his past — and a government conspiracy — during his globetrotting adventures. Director Doug Liman kicked things off with the energetic “The Bourne Identity,” but the franchise really went into high-gear when Paul Greengrass brought his energetic style to the mix, delivering a pair of breakneck thrillers that are some of the last decade’s most entertaining films.

Damon and Greengrass are both gone for “The Bourne Legacy,” which puts Jeremy Renner front-and-center as Aaron Cross, a decidedly non-amnesiac agent working for yet another top-secret government program known as Outcome. Directed by Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the previous “Bourne” films, the film is stylish and well-acted, yet lacks the urgency and intricacy of the original trilogy. The ghost of the previous films hangs so strongly over this that it’s impossible not to compare it to what went before.

Indeed, this entry takes place alongside the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” and, although Jason Bourne never makes an appearance, his presence is continually mentioned. As he draws nearer to New York in his quest to expose Treadstone, high-level operatives panic that he will blow the lid off other hush-hush programs. The mysterious Col Byer (Ed Norton) has already taken precautions to burn every program to the ground and eliminate all evidence.

The problem? The evidence is alive.

As the film opens, Aaron has been sent to train in the Alaskan wilderness for reasons that are hinted at but never followed up on. That his training involves taking mysterious pills, leaping across mountain chasms and killing wolves with his bare hands should provide a hint that he’s not just a normal spy. Indeed, he’s been chemically modified with pills that increase his physicality and intelligence. When the government tries to lay him off via attack drone, Aaron searches for the doctor responsible for his medication.

That doctor is Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who’s recovering from a recent shooting at her laboratory. Although Shearing had no clue that her research was creating super soldiers, the government includes her on its list of targets. Thankfully, Aaron shows up at the same time. When Marta tells him that it’s possible to virally infect him with the medicine and take away the need for pills, the two head to the Philippines with the government hot on their tails.

And that might be the most disappointing thing about “The Bourne Legacy.” The previous three films slowly unveiled a complex mystery that revealed the truth about their hero. Here, despite all the serious talk and secret conference calls, the plot boils down to one thing: Jeremy Renner needs a shot.

It’s a shame, because the film starts strong. Renner is a fine addition to the franchise. The film wisely takes the opposite approach of its predecessors—rather than an agent seeking to regain his lost memories, Aaron is all too aware of who he was before signing up for a spy’s life. He was a man with a low IQ and lower prospects, admitted into the Army because his recruiter needed to fill a quota—without his meds, he’s likely to regress back. Renner brings a solid combination of intelligence and anger to role, and it’s a good showcase for the actor.

Likewise, Norton is a worthy foil. A bureaucrat who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and compromise his morals for his country’s sake, Norton has a great time spouting tough-guy lines.  Gilroy is fond of scenes of terse exposition and tense moments in front of video screens and satellite feeds. Like the other Bourne films, this is chock full of scenes where sharply dressed men and women sit around and explain what’s happening, to whom and why, and it all looks very sleek and stylish.

The problem is that all the convoluted conspiracy material is needless. While Norton’s character warns that “Jason Bourne is just the tip of the iceberg,” the exposition only hides the fact that there’s not much more to the movie than the idea that Aaron Cross wants his medication and the government wants him dead. The exposition simply dresses up a rather simple, formulaic plot.  

Perhaps Gilroy stuck to expository scenes because he’s not comfortable with large action sequences. While he’s passable when filming hand-to-hand combat and foot chases, he unwisely appropriates Greengrass’s “shaky cam” techniques in the film’s climactic car chase. Filled with quick cuts and close ups, the chase is loud, blurry and disorienting. Whereas Greengrass used handheld cameras to capture urgency, chaos and confusion, Gilroy uses it simply because that’s what the franchise does—in his hands, it’s just a mishmash of light and sound.

The film starts strong and deflates as it continues. The opening sequences are taut and serious, and it’s fun to watch Gilroy weave this new story in and out of the original trilogy. Our introduction to Weisz’s character is gripping and suspenseful, and it’s hinted that there are more conspiracies to uncover until Renner and Norton finally go face-to-face. But Weisz character spends most of the film whining about how she did everything “for the science,”  and Cross isn’t interested in doing the right thing, getting revenge or uncovering a conspiracy—he just wants his meds. The film abandons any larger plot threads and saves them for an assumed sequel; Norton’s character is never given his comeuppance, let alone a final face-off with Cross. The film builds to its loud and banal car chase and then ends abruptly.

It’s a shame, because there’s potential. Renner’s very good and the film’s earlier scenes hint at an expansion to the original story that, unfortunately, never becomes as engaging as it promises. I’m fine with them revisiting this world without Jason Bourne; I simply wished they honored his legacy a little more.

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