REVIEW: Despite Renner Power, Bourne Legacy Is A Slog Of A Sequel
The Bourne Legacy is a passable movie that has the peculiar misfortune of being part of a very successful, influential and distinctive franchise. Box office-wise, this is probably not going to be much of a hardship, but in terms of content and style it definitely suffers in comparison. The Bourne predecessors, particularly the two directed by Paul Greengrass, are by my count some of the most exhilarating action movies in recent cinematic history.
The Bourne Legacy is not.
Still, it has two very good leads in Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz and a few tense, rangy sequences in a half-restored house in the Maryland woods and in the sterile confines of a high-security lab. Tony Gilroy, who worked on the screenplays for the past three films in the series, gets a bump up to director in this installment (he also shares a writing credit), but, that jowly opening fight in Duplicity aside, he's no great facilitator of action scenes.
Gilroy also has to reverse engineer this ungainly "sidequel" to fit around the existing mythology of the previous trilogy without overlapping it too much — Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) himself is mentioned many times while never appearing, but his actions are what spur the events in this film, which takes place in approximately the same time frame as The Bourne Ultimatum.
The result is a convoluted back-end story that's grouted around what's happened before, but is essentially the tale of a brutal clean- and cover-up. Bourne looked for clues to his identity and his reason for being; Cross (Renner), the hero of The Bourne Legacy, is just trying to stay whole.
It's a process that's more complicated than straightforward survival for him. Cross is an agent of Outcome, which, like Blackbriar, is a successor program to Bourne's black ops Treadstone operation. The twist for Outcome participants is that they've had their physical and mental abilities enhanced by a carefully managed regimen of space age pills adjusted for their specific chemistry — "chems" are what Cross calls them, and the frequency of his insistent demands for them could be the basis a decent drinking game (it turns out he's got a good reason for not wanting to degrade back to his standard self).
Out of fear it'll be discovered in the Blackbriar/Jason Bourne fallout, Outcome is shut down and everyone involved, agents and scientists alike, are killed. Cross happens to escape the burn down, and goes in search of the sole surviving doctor from the lab, Marta Shearing (Weisz). She's been made a target herself, and before you know it the two are off and running to a facility in the Philippines where they hope to stabilize Cross' condition while the National Research Assay Group, led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton), use all the technology and operatives at their disposal to track them down.
Renner's Aaron Cross is no Jason Bourne, in welcome ways. Where Bourne was half traumatized boy scout, half instinctual killing machine, Cross' eyes are wide open — he's had no mental break, no soul-deep shock from which to recover, no dark past to rediscover. He's also matter-of-fact and funny, with traces of the worldly swagger Renner showed as his disturbingly fearless bomb disposal expert in The Hurt Locker; in the midst of the on-the-go running that makes up most of the film, he manages to get a laugh out of the outrage he displays when Marta reveals she doesn't know his name.
Weisz plays her character as a dorkily committed, slightly scattered professional who's always focused on the results of rather than the reasons behind her work, and who's only slowly realizing the seriousness of what she's been involved in. There's not much time for nookie in The Bourne Legacy's multinational pursuit, but the pair have the crackle of legitimate chemistry, enough to make you want more scenes of them together and less of them in visually garbled clashes and chases.
The Bourne Legacy mimics the nigh revelatory look of the second and third Bourne movies without sharing their stomach-dropping sense of space and awareness of the physicality of their characters (the cinematographer is Oliver Wood, who also shot The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy). The brief fight scenes seem edited together punch by punch, while a race across Manila rooftops recalls the Tangier sequence in Ultimatum without its clammy-palmed tautness — it looks more like your now-standard blockbuster parkour display.
The aspects of The Bourne Legacy that work, chief among them Renner and Weisz, feel like they should somehow be salvaged and put into their own potentially more standard action movie. As is, the film feels hampered by its own franchise, by the shoehorned-in scenes in which David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Albert Finney and others continue their covert agency cold wars that are now once removed from what's happened to our current protagonist, and by the awkward extended intro in which Cross has been sent on a kind of probationary exercise into the wilds of Alaska during which he literally wrestles a wolf.
And as the latest bureaucrat-cum-villain, Norton has distressingly little to do but bark orders at techs operating computers, the lone flashback to a past interaction with Cross giving no great sense of tie between the two, or weight to the high-tech cat-and-mouse game. Like much of the movie, Norton's presence has a patient, diligent quality to it, as if what's on screen is just a slog to get through before some promised fun in the next installment.