Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bourne to Run: THE BOURNE LEGACY

The biggest question I had going into The Bourne Legacy was “What happens to a series when it’s no longer about what it’s about?” Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity and the sequels – Supremacy and Ultimatum – from Paul Greengrass star Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, an amnesiac spy who, in order to solve the mystery his identity, has to stay one step ahead of shadowy United States operatives bent on taking him out to prevent that very discovery. It’s a series of dizzyingly complicated character-driven spy thrillers that together form a rare hugely satisfying trilogy. They’re three films that snap together with excellent resonance and airtight plotting all the way through. They are my favorite action movies of the past decade. It was so complete a trilogy of films that Damon didn’t want to come back for a fourth. Greengrass didn’t either. He quipped that it should be called “Bourne Redundancy.” But there was money to be made from the lucrative franchise so here we are.

No longer about Jason Bourne’s search for identity, Legacy nonetheless maintains consistency with the prior trilogy by not only retaining supporting actors like Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and David Strathairn in small roles, but also bringing in one of the series’ scripter Tony Gilroy (on the heels of his two great directorial outings Michael Clayton and Duplicity) to write and direct. Without Damon’s Bourne, this film focuses on a new character, Aaron Cross, a secret agent in a similar secret program. He’s played by Jeremy Renner. (After Mission: Impossible 4 and The Avengers, this marks the third time he's been brought in to boost a franchise's ranks). The plot of this film starts parallel to the action of The Bourne Ultimatum. While Jason Bourne is doing what he does there, Cross is off in the Alaskan wilderness on a training exercise. When the masterminds of this whole national-security conspiracy panic, they decide to eliminate this particular program, swooping in to kill their field assets before the whole experiment is revealed to the public.

Of course, Cross avoids death and sets off to find answers. Back in the program’s headquarters, while the familiar suits are on Bourne-related business, new characters played by Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy and Corey Stoll fret in dark, tense control rooms, staring at monitors and flipping through classified documents. They’re trying to stay one step ahead of the agents they’re trying to dispose of. Cross sidesteps them and finds himself aiding and aided by a government scientist (Rachel Weisz) who is also targeted in this bloody cover-up. Soon they’re racing together on an intercontinental escape from the people they once worked for. This is familiar Bourne material with a clever, skillful protagonist moving through fake passports and running from all kinds of armed security, while the real villains sit drumming their fingers impatiently in tense conference rooms and in front of glowing screens.

Although in the grand scheme of all that’s come before, this is merely a feature-length footnote in an epilogue, time will tell if this is a spin-off, a reboot, a one-off, or a cause for Jason Bourne to come out of hiding in a future sequel and bring it all full circle. I don’t know what to hope for, myself, since Ultimatum finished off his story so spectacularly. It’d be difficult to top. But anyways, we’re talking Bourne Legacy here. It’s a tense film filled with lengthy scenes of grim exposition and quick bursts of well-staged action. Gilroy ditches Greengrass’s shaky-cam style for something moderately more stately with effective tension-gathering cinematography from the great Robert Elswit. At the very least, together they manage to create a car chase sequence that’s a more than adequate addition to this franchise’s hallmark area of excellence. They also keep the chilly spy-versus-spy feeling of it all nice and cool.

Renner gives a fine performance as a troubled betrayed operative and Weisz is more than ready to work as his rattled counterpart. They’re fine action movie actors, but it’s hard for the story to not feel a little thin. They’re cogs more than characters. Because the earlier films had a MacGuffin that tied intimately into the character’s inner dilemma – Bourne was searching for his history, his true identity, after all – it’s a little disappointing to find that Gilroy has put in its place a more literal object to retrieve. Aaron Cross and his scientist ally are on the lookout for a little pill that his phase of the top-secret project was forcing agents to take. Without it, Cross will be debilitated or something. It doesn’t really matter what the pill will do; all that matters is that it’s important enough to keep the plot moving. Which also happens to be the movie’s main reason for existence. It keeps the Bourne franchise going. And if that has to happen, it sure could be a lot worse than just a fun, if inconsequential, action thriller, even though the franchise has set a much higher bar for itself.

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