The Bourne Legacy
Director : Tony Gilroy
Screenplay : Tony Gilroy & Dan Gilroy (story by Tony Gilroy)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Jeremy Renner (Aaron Cross), Rachel Weisz (Dr. Marta Shearing), Edward Norton (Ret. Col. Eric Byer), Stacy Keach (Ret. Adm. Mark Turso), Oscar Isaac (Outcome #3), Joan Allen (Pam Landy), Albert Finney (Dr. Albert Hirsch), David Strathairn (Noah Vosen), Scott Glenn (Ezra Kramer)
The Bourne Legacy is not so much a reboot of the genre-redefining series of espionage thrillers as it is an offshoot, a breakneck turn into a parallel universe that overlaps just enough with the last film narratively, thematically, and aesthetically to make them feel as if they were cut from roughly the same cloth. Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002) was a watershed moment in the American action genre, as it broke cleanly and smartly from the musclebound hyperbole of the Stallone-Schwarzenegger mold that had dominated in the ’80s and ’90s with a shrewd sense of intelligence, physicality, and existential angst that was both intensified and refined in Paul Greengrass’s sequels, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).
Taking over the reigns this time around is Tony Gilroy, who has been known primarily as a screenwriter (his credits include the previous three Bourne films), although his directorial debut, the dark legal thriller Michael Clayton (2007), showcased his fantastic cinematic eye and political sensibility, both of which are reminiscent of the ’70s New American Cinema. His vaguely disappointing sophomore film, Duplicity (2009), was a screwball riff on some of the same paranoid themes that never quite worked mainly because his leads (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) simply didn’t have the chemistry required to make it click.
Chemistry is not a problem in The Bourne Legacy, as Gilroy’s leads, Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, develop a genuinely moving connection throughout the film, building in intimacy in a way that doesn’t need easy romantic pay-off to make it work. Gilroy is clearly taking a page (or several of them) from his own screenwriters’ playbook, as much of Legacy replays the basic scenario in The Bourne Identity, albeit without the amnesia. Renner, finally taking a lead role after his magnetic, career-defining turn as a psychologically empty bomb defuser in The Hurt Locker (2009), plays Aaron Cross, a Bourne-esque spy who we first meet training in the Alaskan wilderness. Just as Jason Bourne was the product of the ultra-secret CIA project Treadstone, Cross is the product of a military eugenics experiment known as “Outcome” that has produced nine genetically enhanced soldier-spys. And, like Bourne, Cross soon finds himself in the crosshairs of his former employers, who are led by Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) and Adm. Mark Turso (Stacy Keach), both of whom spend most of the film glowering and barking orders at underlings as they pull up high-resolution satellite maps and surveillance camera footage. Cross’s handlers want to wipe him out along with all evidence of the experiment that produced him, which involves a genetics research firm whose scientists are killed in particularly brutal and frightening fashion, especially if you’ve been watching the news for the past month. The only survivor, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), ends up in Cross’s company as he helps her escape the country with her life and she helps him get the particular formula he needs to make his genetic transformation permanent. (Some spoilers to follow, so proceed with caution …)
Cross’s need to make permanent his genetic tampering is a particularly tricky and intriguing part of the story because, prior to the revelation that his superior intelligence, senses, and physicality were the result of an elaborate military experiment, he was little more than a generic action superman, albeit one who is inherently endowed with additional weight and gravitas simply because he’s played by Renner, who seems to be making up for his having been wasted in The Avengers earlier this summer. Just as Bourne’s amnesia made him fundamentally tragic as he battled to reclaim and then reject his identity in favor of a deeper humanity, Cross’s sense of self is built largely on the fact that he has been turned into a better version of himself, which we learn was at one time so dim that his Army recruiter had to add 12 IQ points to allow him to enlist. In other words, The Bourne Legacy is like an accelerated action movie riff on Flowers for Algernon, and it carries the same tragic charge in which the protagonist faces the possibility of mental deterioration, made all the worse by his heightened awareness of what that would mean. In this regard, Renner’s casting is crucial because he brings to the character intensity, intelligence, and vulnerability, a crucial mix that makes the film work as more than just a simple spy-on-the-run rehashing.
Although his directorial resume is largely action-free, Gilroy stages the film’s numerous fight and chase sequences with a gritty sense of panache. He doesn’t quite achieve the brain-rattling intensity of Greengrass’s best moments in the previous two films, but he finds a workable balance between hectic violence and visual coherence. He overplays his hand in the third act when he introduces another genetically enhanced superspy who is sent to eliminate Cross, a move that is counterproductive to the film’s paranoid vision of one man working against the system and eventually just plain silly, as the assassin keeps coming and coming like a horror-movie slasher who won’t die. Cinematographer Robert Elswite and editor John Gilroy (both of whom worked on Michael Clayton and Duplicity) give the action just enough grit to make it feel more realistic than fantastical, even when Aaron is battling wolves in the Alaskan wilderness or doing things on a motorcycle in the streets of Manila that I’m pretty sure defy the laws of physics. But, that is precisely what works best in the Bourne films: a striking sense of verisimilitude laid on top of popcorn exuberance. And while it’s certainly not the best film in the series, The Bourne Legacy is enticing enough its own right to justify its final images, which are clearly paving the way for yet another entry.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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