Bourne Legacy, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/09/12 20:56:54
In the wake of the decision by Matt Damon to not sign up to reprise the role of amnesiac super-spy Jason Bourne in a fourth installment of the hugely successful film franchise inspired by the best-selling novels by the late Robert Ludlum, the producers of the series were left with the difficult decision of how to proceed from there. They could have simply recast the role and continued on in the manner of the James Bond films on the basis that the character was more important than the person playing him. They could have gone the "Spider-Man" route by rebooting the series and starting over again with newer and presumably cheaper actors going through the now-familiar paces. They could have even simply put the series to rest for the time being and sacrifice millions in potential revenues rather than run the risk of ruining a good thing--an impulse that hardly anyone in the entire history of Hollywood has even contemplated, let alone acted upon.Instead of picking any of these selections, the producers of "The Bourne Legacy" have gone in yet another direction by crafting a new adventure that trades on the good name that the Bourne series have developed among moviegoers over the course of "The Bourne Identity," "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum"--the rare string of films that has actually gotten better with each additional installment--without actually featuring the character of Jason Bourne himself. Instead, while Bourne is doing his thing off-screen--literally at one point--the film instead turns its focus onto a new and never-before-seen character who is just as adept and highly skilled as Bourne but who presumably costs less than the millions that might have been required to lure Damon back into the fold. From a business standpoint, such a decision makes sense--if audiences respond to it, Universal has not only revamped a profitable franchise that might have otherwise withered away and they have also left the door open for Damon to return to do a genuine Bourne story at some point down the line if he wanted to return to the fold. From a creative perspective, however, it is a slightly iffier proposition because while it nowhere near the slapdash rip-off that its origins might suggest, it does lack the punch and finesse of the earlier films and when all is said and done, all it really does is remind viewers of just how good the previous Bourne adventures really were.
If you recall--and you had better if you have any hope of understanding what the hell is going on here at any given moment--"The Bourne Ultimatum" ended with the top-secret government program, known as Treadstone, that Bourne was a part of finally beginning to unravel as the result of his tireless effort and facing intense government scrutiny. As it turns out, Treadstone was only one of a series of similarly clandestine and quasi-legal programs and the imminent revelations about that one could threaten to expose the others as well and lead to all sorts of bad news for those behind them. Of these other programs, the most troublesome is Outcome, in which the very genetic structure of the participants has been altered by a regular pill regimen--the green ones boost intelligence and the blue ones improve physical attributes--and without them, they regress to their previous states, a move that the test subjects seem unwilling to make. When a link between Treadstone and Outcome is discovered, government troubleshooter Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is brought in to shut the program down and to terminate all the loose ends with extreme prejudice.
The one loose end they didn't count on, as Mr. Trailer Voice might say, is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an Outcome operative who is in the middle of some vague training exercise in the wilds of remote Alaska when he loses most of his stash of pills in an accident. While returning to civilization for a new collection of meds, he happens upon another Outcome test subject (Oscar Isaac), a meeting that starts off on an uncomfortable note--neither one has ever actually met a fellow member of the program--and then goes downhill when Byer sends out a drone to kill them. Using methods that Liam Neeson would approve of, Aaron survives and makes his way back to the mainland in the hopes of tracking down genetic scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) and getting a new supply of the medication. Of course, she is also a target of the cleanup program--she barely survives a workplace shooting that eliminates every colleague hers with the slightest connection to Outcome--and when he finally finds her, the two are once again forced to go on the run. The bad news is that Marta does not have any more of the pills but the good news is that it is possible to make the enhancements of the pills permanent through the injection of a special serum. This leads to a trip to the Philippines where the two attempt to infiltrate a top-secret pharmaceutical lab to whip up and administer the serum before it is too late while Byer does everything he can stop them before everything is finally exposed.
The success of the previous Bourne films can basically be boiled down into three key elements; screenplays that effectively blended together intelligently conceived and well-plotted narratives of increased complexity, thrilling action sequences and an ever-fascinating central character, direction (from Doug Liman in "The Bourne Identity" and Paul Greengrass in the subsequent entries) that effectively kept the increasingly byzantine plots moving along with surprising clarity and which kept the excitement level going whether the characters were sitting in rooms talking or jumping across rooftops and a central performance from Matt Damon that took a potentially cartoonish character and found an emotional core that humanized him and made him more sympathetic to viewers. Perhaps befitting a spin-off of a familiar property, "The Bourne Legacy" tries to follow in the established footsteps of the previous films while putting its own distinctive spin on the material but Tony Gilroy, who has had a hand in the screenplays for the earlier films and who co-wrote this one with brother Dan as well as stepping up to the director's chair, doesn't have quite as sure of a grasp this time around.
The story is a globe-trotting jumble that gets so confusing at times that there are points where the characters are forced to explain what is going on to each other as well as those of us in the audience. A bigger problem, however, is the weirdly tentative manner in which the screenplay introduces its new central character. After all, the film is not only trying to replace one of the more dynamic characters to hit the screen in recent years but is trying to do so with a character who is supposed to be even more fascinating and extraordinary in regards to his abilities. However, despite all the protestations to the contrary, Aaron Cross is really not that compelling--it goes without saying that following the adventures of an amnesiac gradually discovering that he possesses amazing abilities is far more intriguing than following those of a guy who knows he is all-powerful and just wants his pills. Adding to the problem is that the film spends so much time trying to establish its various convolutions that our putative hero is essentially a bystander in his own story for the first hour. The balance between the action and the exposition that the series has always maintained in the past also feels a bit askew as well in the way that we are treated to long sequences of people explaining things punctuated with the occasional burst of action until the final reel, where it shifts radically to the other direction as all hell breaks loose in the Philippines.
Gilroy's previous directorial efforts, "MIchael Clayton" and the underrated "Duplicity," were both excellent movies but neither one was even close to being of the size and scope of "The Bourne Legacy" and as his work here demonstrates, he doesn't really have much of a feel for it either. While Greengrass seemed equally at home in terms of handling both the action and the more straightforward dramatic material, it quickly becomes clear that Gilroy is far more comfortable with the latter than the former. He does keep events moving at a relatively decent clip and in the kind of smoothly professional manner that allows most viewers to sort of follow along with at the broad strokes of the plot, even if they would fail a quiz on the details even if it were held as the end credits were rolling. He is a lot more tentative in regards to his characters when they step out of their offices or hiding places in order to either chase or be chased. These scenes are staged in a professional enough manner and are put together with more care and efficiency than most action spectaculars of late but compared to the truly distinctive set-pieces found in the previous installments, what is on display here can't help but come up short in comparison. The one sequence that actually does strike a chord is the one in which Marta is trapped in her office while her co-workers are being gunned down--even if you are able to ignore the ways in which it is reminiscent of any number of recent tragedies, it unnerves in ways that films of this type with borderline-holocaustal body counts rarely do anymore.
No doubt a reflection of the reputations of both the franchise and Gilroy's talents, "The Bourne Legacy" has a very strong cast but for the most part, what there are asked to do here is essentially the thespic equivalent of a triathlon--they run, they shoot and, very occasionally, they are asked to emote. Jeremy Renner is one of the more charismatic young actors on the scene these days and while he is convincing enough in regards to the physical necessities of his character, he is hamstrung throughout to a certain degree by the fact that he personally is far more interesting than the role that he is playing. Likewise, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton are among the best in the business and while their presence does add some heft to the proceedings, it is unlikely that their contributions will be featured prominently in any future Lifetime Achievement highlight reels. The supporting cast is filled with good actors who do their job with a minimum of fuss and series regulars like Albert Finney, David Straithairn and Joan Allen are trotted out in cameo roles to help forge a further connection between this film and the others. Although I enjoyed seeing the veterans of the franchise pop up here and there, their presence only serves to remind viewers of just how good those films were and how this one just doesn't quite measure up.As blatant attempts to extend the life of a film franchise even after many of the key creative personnel have moved on, "The Bourne Legacy" is nowhere near as dire as might have been. It is ambitious, reasonably well-made and I can't say that I was ever bored while watching it. At the same time, however, I just never found myself getting into it to the degree that I did with the earlier films and towards the end, I was more exhausted than enthralled. I am not totally sold on it as a whole but while I can't quite recommend it, the best parts do have a distinctive snap to them that cannot be dismissed completely. If nothing else, one can at least take comfort in the fact that of the original trilogy, "The Bourne Identity" was easily the least of the three and that as time went on, they quickly improved. With any luck, lightning will strike again and if this one inspires follow-ups, perhaps they will get better and better as well. Then again, maybe Greengrass and Damon will come in from the cold and in that case, so much the better.
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