Just before The Bourne Legacy gets its game on, the franchise?s new face, played by Jeremy Renner, comes out of the Alaskan wilderness to take refuge in a cabin. There he meets another of his kind, a superspy with a scowl and enough artillery to invade a small country. By the time they?ve grudgingly warmed up to each other an unmanned drone is blasting everything to bits. It?s an effectively blunt opener for a series that from its start has tracked a different military drone, this one a man fighting to recover first his identity and then his humanity. That you may not remember the name of Mr. Renner?s agent, Aaron Cross, after all the dust finally settles, suggests that the fight goes on.
Less a thrilling franchise reboot than a solid salvage mission, The Bourne Legacy is the fourth installment in a series that until now starred Matt Damon as the eponymous spy who, with his near-uncanny wiles, smarts and strength, ran circles around American intelligence agencies and box office rivals both. Superior industrial entertainments, the three previous titles - the first was directed by Doug Liman, the second and third by Paul Greengrass - injected new energy and savvy into American action cinema, which like many of its aging stars had been suffering from blockbuster bloat. The Bourne movies put identifiable human stakes into the action equation, along with a sense of palpable moral outrage, politics and, under Mr. Greengrass?s kinetic watch, increased torque.
Here, then, was an American hero who didn?t wreak random destruction, who didn?t simply light the fuse with a wisecrack and walk away but dug deep into the mystery of why there was a chip in his body and blood on his hands. (Plus: supercool stunts.) Both Mr. Greengrass and Mr. Damon were slated to make another Bourne, but when that project fell apart Tony Gilroy, a writer on all three earlier movies, was tapped to take the lead on the franchise. Mr. Gilroy has only two other directing credits, including Michael Clayton, a low-key, low-action thriller in which the biggest bangs were from an exploding car and Tilda Swinton's savage performance as a lawyer.
Mr. Gilroy?s script for The Bourne Legacy, written with his brother Dan, has given him much more to wrangle ? locations, characters, hardware, franchise expectations ? than he?s had to deal with in the past. If that worried him, it doesn?t show in the movie?s hyperventilated opening stretch, which zips from Cross battling wolves, doubts and military drones in Alaska; to Scott Glenn and Stacy Keach as a couple of military men who go alpha male to alpha male about a covert operation and its consequences in a darkened room in the D.C. power corridor; to Edward Norton, as Colonel Byer, barking someplace else at flunkies who, not being your average hired help, can pull up high-definition surveillance images from across the globe with a few phone calls and strokes on a keyboard.
In between the edited cacophony and grimaces a story emerges involving yet another secret intelligence campaign, this one called Outcome, which has produced enhanced operatives ? like Cross ? as ingenious and lethally skilled as Bourne. Gradually and somewhat murkily Mr. Gilroy lays out how Cross ended up wrestling with wolves in Alaska only to play a more savage game of cat and mouse with Colonel Byer. The sympathetic Mr. Renner handles the action scenes persuasively, but Mr. Gilroy never turns the fight sequences, as both Mr. Liman and Mr. Greengrass did, into occasions for a surprisingly resonant sense of regret and even sorrow. Cross has his own qualms, as flashbacks reveal, but none of Jason Bourne?s deeply felt agonies or his strong sense of purpose.
As Mr. Gilroy whips from location to location, jumping into scenes without much explanation beyond a nod to the location, it can feel, especially early on, as if he?s trying too hard to match the accelerated tempo of Mr. Greengrass?s movies. However frenetically paced, each of the three Bourne movies sprang more or less coherently from the one before it. And because Mr. Greengrass was building on the same story with the same hero and other familiar faces, his feverish crosscutting and globe-trotting never got in the way of narrative coherence. By contrast, while Mr. Gilroy retains some of the Bourne bequest, he?s also created a tricky parallel universe with a new agency that has its own clenched-jawed, closed-door complications and a hero who nearly becomes lost among them.
Mr. Gilroy cleverly handles some of the overlap between the new Bourne reality and the old by, for instance, folding characters from the earlier movies into this one. He even stitches a bit that looks as if it?s from The Bourne Ultimatum, with a shot of Colonel Byer on the phone, a juxtaposition that suggests that he?s been casting shadows over Bourne World for a while. Yet Mr. Gilroy, perhaps impatient to establish his own Bourne legacy, doesn?t work off the franchise?s foundation for long, instead veering off to juggle his many new faces and places. By the time Rachel Weisz, as a scientist called Dr. Marta Shearing, showed up in a lab coat, I stopped trying to parse every plot twist and just went with the action flow.
Some of that action flows nicely, as in a tense, unnerving shootout in a house, even if Mr. Gilroy can be disappointingly cavalier when it comes to racking up bodies. Little feels at stake here, other than his future as a Bourne director. One of the pleasures of this series is how well its ever more kinetic visual style has served its stories. With its frenzied fragmentation of time and space, the filmmaking has conveyed a sense of urgency that mirrored Bourne?s shattered being and his propulsive, convulsive journey from unenlightened self-interest to accountability, from the existential question mark of his identity to a hard moral reckoning. Through all three movies Jason Bourne was still trying to find the answers. Now with Bourne gone, Mr. Gilroy needs to find other questions worth asking.
? 2012, The New York Times News Service