The three previous Bourne movies were big deals, popular among both average and uppity filmgoers, because they were actually thrilling spy thrillers made with virtually no special effects, directed by the auteurs Doug Limon (The Bourne Identity) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum), and all written tautly by Tony Gilroy with moral ambiguity and character development. And they starred not just Matt Damon, one of the great actors of his generation, but also a host of brilliant others, from Joan Allen to Albert Finney, from Chris Cooper to David Straithairn. If it weren’t for the success of The Bourne Identity, the gritty reboot of James Bond with Daniel Craig would never have happened the way it did. So, after Damon and Greengrass decided they were done, whoever was chosen to reboot the franchise faced two difficult tasks: Make a movie as good as any in the previous trilogy. Don’t make a movie that feels like a cynical exploitation of goodwill earned by the previous trilogy.
It should have worked. They hired Tony Gilroy to write and direct The Bourne Legacy, in which the corrupt intelligence agencies of the US government, roiling from their failed battle with Jason Bourne, shut down the superspy program and kill everyone involved. But two escape. Gilroy is an Oscar-nominated director and writer (Michael Clayton), and he cast a host of Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-anointed actors: Jeremy Renner (nominated for The Hurt Locker and The Town) as the fugitive agent Aaron Cross, Rachel Weisz (winner for The Constant Gardener) as a scientist involved in making the superspies, Ed Norton (nominated for American History X and Primal Fear) as the amoral G-man in charge of killing Cross, Zeljko Ivanek (three Tony nominations and an Emmy) as an unstable colleague of Weisz, and Donna Murphy (two Tonys) in a thankless role as one of Norton’s yesmen. Combined with the cinemographer Robert Elswit (Oscar winner for There Will be Blood) and composer James Newton (nominated for eight Oscars), The Bourne Legacy could have been great.
It’s Gilroy’s fault, both for writing a wisp of screenplay and agreeing to force the movie into existence simply because Universal wanted to exploit the Bourne brand. The plot isn’t totally inorganic – it makes sense that the US spy agencies in the Bourne universe would decide to shut down and kill everyone involved in creating the Bourne-type spies – but after that is set up during the first incredibly confusing 30 minutes of the film, the next nearly two hours are just a series of chase scenes.
Gilroy handles these mostly exciting sequences well. Almost all of the stunts seem physically possible, and though the science that gave Cross his agility and smarts is fiction, the spy tools, from the guns to the surveillance systems, is nearly analog compared to the digital impossibilities in the Mission: Impossible or James Bond movies. And Renner is spectacularly great choice as an action hero, intense and wry and athletic. But having someone of Weisz’s caliber playing what amounts to a damsel in distress is disappointing, just as having Ed Norton playing a two-dimensional evil bureaucrat seems like a waste. Though neither is as underwhelming as much as the sudden and anti-climactic ending; it’s simply a set up for the next film. It’s a cliff hanger, without a cliff. Or anyone hanging.
No one ever thought the original Bourne movies were high art that accidentally made money, but The Bourne Legacy is focus-grouped consumer product in prestige wrapping paper. At the movies, there are no gift receipts.
The Bourne Legacy
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Written by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy
Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, and Ed Norton
At your local multiplex