Ten Word or Less Review: Oh yeah. This was happening too!
When Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass said no more Bourne films for us, the audience at large was okay with it. Under Greengrass’ direction and with Damon as his muscular, haunted lead, the Bourne franchise had come to define action films for the first decade of the 21st century. Smart, fast paced, diligently plotted and invigorating almost to a fault, the Bourne movies are the standard bearer and Greengrass ended his tale in an okay place. They could have gone on but it wasn’t necessary. So when the powers that be said ‘God speed and good luck guys. Go hire someone else to make another one.’, there was a collective groan to be heard around all corners of the internet. Replace Damon ala James Bond styled reboot? Prequel? Sequel? Hire Brett Ratner to screw it all up? None of the above. Faced with the conundrum of continuing a franchise which was still healthy and in no need of retooling, the Bourne story has decided to take a sideways turn.
We meet Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) floating in an icy lake, much like we met Damon’s Jason Bourne at the opening of The Bourne Identity. Cross hasn’t been shot and lost his memory. He’s swimming to the bottom of this frigid pool to bring up a thermos of pills. Like Bourne, Cross is a clandestine government project on two feet, a soldier with an altered identity being trained for top secret government black ops. Cross’s abilities come from training, he can fight wolves better than Liam Neeson, but also from chemistry. He must systematically pop pills to maintain his advanced mental and physical edge. As Legacy introduces us to this new character, it doubles back into crucial events of Bourne Ultimatum. The events of that film, a murdered reporter, Joan Allen’s aiding Bourne and alerting the press, Scott Glenn and David Strathairn’s sinister government guys in suits plotting nasty things under the guise of patriotism, all have a ripple effect over neighboring programs similar to Treadstone, the program which produced Bourne. New hard-line government guy in a suit Edward Norton decides that his next generation program, dubbed Outcome, needs to be wiped clean in the wake of the media following Bourne and his whistle blowing. He orders his project participants killed, Cross included, as well as the doctors who studied the science. After a steady build up Legacy plants itself in the footprints of it’s forefather movies, having Cross dash across the globe with Rachel Weisz, a scientist who escapes assassination, as the two attempt to get Cross off the meds which keep him going and discover why they’re suddenly targets.
Legacy was never going to reach the heights of pure movie delirium Supremacy and Ultimatum both achieved so Tony Gilroy, series screenwriter and now director, doesn’t even try. He follows the quick beats and steady pacing Greengrass established in the previous two efforts, aping the style well, even managing to match the general intensity those films achieved. There’s a sequence in a lab with a guy killing his co-workers which is believably executed and eerie to a fault. What Gilroy can’t achieve is the consistently explosive nature of previous Bourne adventures. The Bourne franchise has slammed across the screen with such adrenaline and pressure that to attempt to escalate things even more would risk throwing the whole thing down the loony tune well. Gilroy turns things down a level and simply avoids any tendency to try to one up his predecessors. He instead works to build a nice steady rhythm for himself, stick the landing of his car chase sequence at the end, and otherwise massage the offshoot narrative he’s trying to graft onto the existing story. And it’s this last part wear things get dicey.
While Legacy looks and acts like it’s bigger, older brothers, it isn’t as well thought out or as deftly constructed. Legacy is far more successful at building on its ‘this is also happening’ story than one would imagine but it’s only half of a plot Gilroy has built. When you boil away a few things Legacy is about nothing more than Renner’s Cross trying to find a pill to take, and then not take, and very little else. The story all but dead ends well before it should, writing itself into a corner of sorts, then abruptly rolls the credits before anything more meaningful than Cross’s pill problem has been resolved. The whole thing winds up feeling like 2/3 of a fine movie, the larger resolution being held back so the powers that be can have time to woo Damon back into the fold for one last go around.
New guy Renner has been building up this choice opportunity for a while now. His recent career path has felt planned out as a grand attempt to lead into this. After two Oscar noms in two years, The Hurt Locker and The Town, Renner took second banana duty in the last Mission: Impossible venture and then took a 7th banana part so he could merely be onscreen in The Avengers. It’s considered a good career movie by some if you’re in a movie 300 million people will see. With all these underwhelming but high exposure supporting roles, Renner finally takes the lead and as expected he’s spot on for the part. Cross doesn’t come with all the moral baggage and ethical hand wringing Bourne was carrying around, he’s simply a guy trying to solve a problem and stay alive. He could easily have been written as dull action fodder but Renner has too much going on behind the eyes. He’s a spry performer and part of me thinks he could easily match quips with the best of them were he given the chance. If they ever get around to that Escape from NY remake I say cast him as Pliskken. But like the film, Cross as a character stops short because the movie gives him nothing to do but survive. There are frequent hints and quick scenes which imply a deeper layer of character, but they don’t payoff this time around. He’s mostly worried about taking his pill.
The always luminescent and vastly talented Rachel Weisz is here playing the unspectacular scientist/action movie girl part. I’m guessing she’s here for money and exposure. She’s fine in an undemanding but okay written role. What’s more fascinating is that Weisz seems to be not aging on screen. She’s quite possibly a vampire. 16 years ago she ran around behind Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction and today at the age of 42 she looks not a day older than she did then. Edward Norton is the stern, bureaucrat in a suit barking orders at subordinates this time. Norton tends to bring a little something extra no matter how trivial the part and while there isn’t much of a character to play, he makes what little there is work. The most we learn about his character is that he apparently likes to jog at 4 AM during a torrential down pour. But like everyone else here he’s a part with out a finale, waiting for another movie.
The Bourne Legacy works quite well on its own terms, until it doesn’t. The film wants to be its own thing but with a stalled, half story as a crutch to lean on it winds up feeling like the place holder it didn’t mean to be. It has the intensity and the pacing to stand shamelessly next to its predecessors but when it’s over it feels like it’s being held back, waiting in the hope that Damon will come back into the fold so the series can resolve itself in proper fashion. I hope he does return. Renner and company deserve to finish their tale in more fitting fashion. If Sean Connery can come back to play Bond, twice, then getting Damon back for one more shot shouldn’t be impossible. The check he’ll want will make the studio feel like it’s passing a corporate sized kidney stone but it should be worth it.