Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The Bourne series, a trio of intelligent and relentlessly energetic action films based on the late author Robert Ludlum's enigmatic secret agent character, collectively stand as an anomaly: popcorn movies designed to make viewers think while dispensing the kind of raw violence that fans of those Expendables stars crave. With his impressive hand-to-hand skills, Matt Damon settled into the demanding role of Jason Bourne in unexpected, career-defining ways, playing the amnesiac mystery man as a tortured, pissed-off James Bond type with a target on his back and a propensity for dropping foes with lightning-quick efficiency.
After 2002's Doug Liman-helmed The Bourne Identity, and its subsequent, superior sequels directed by Paul Greengrass, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, the franchise firmly became Damon's own, so when it was announced that regular Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy had signed on to oversee, both on the page and behind the camera, a fourth installment sans Damon, red flags went to full mast in fans' minds. Nothing against Gilroy, though, who proved that he's a fine director with the Academy Award-worthy drama Michael Clayton and the twisty comedy Duplicity, but neither of those films had even a shred of Bourne-quality action set-pieces, and, similarly, Bourne Legacy frontman Jeremy Renner earned heaps of respect through his pair of Oscar-nominated performances in The Hurt Locker and The Town, but, again, Bourne is, for all intents and purpose, Matt Damon's show. How could Gilroy's edition not ultimately disappoint and make audience members scream, "Cash grab"?
By being really damn good, that's how. Though Gilroy's overemphasis on evolving the series mythology begins to weigh down the sequel's plot by its third act, The Bourne Legacyis a fine extension of the previous three movies' universe, packed with rousing run-and-gun sequences that'd make Greengrass proud and anchored by Renner's pensive but equally explosive acting, a performance that's, fortunately, different enough from Damon's work to establish the former's Aaron Cross character as an acceptable torch-bearer.
Story wise, Gilroy and co-writer, and brother, Dan Gilroy expand upon the world of 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, beginning The Bourne Legacy right as key moments of that third film are underway; it's a risky move, one that could have felt tacked on instead of organically inserted, but Gilroy ties it all together nicely. Cross is, like Jason Bourne, a covered-up field agent; unlike Bourne, however, Cross is a byproduct of a now-unveiled secret intelligence program called Outcome, which has genetically enhanced the DNA of its campaign. Due to Jason Bourne's insubordination, the government is pulling the plug on Outcome, eliminating all of its "participants" one by one, an eradication plan carried out by Colonel Byer (fellow series newcomer Edward Norton), who orders around computer geniuses in location-unknown surveillance centers.
Byer's kill-them-all mission begins rather quickly into The Bourne Legacy, giving the film's first half a high body-count that includes wild animals, thanks to a particularly clever and darkly comedic bit involving Cross, an agitated wolf, and a strategically placed missile tracking device. One of the more impressive scenes, though, happens without Renner's protagonist; instead, it's the always superb Rachel Weisz who gets caught in the middle of a music-free, cold-blooded mass execution inside a research lab, with one of her colleagues emptying bullets into his fellow scientists without emotion.
It's in that moment that Gilroy plants his directorial flag; whereas Liman and Greengrass favored stylistic action with minimal casualties, Gilroy litters countless corpses throughout The Bourne Legacy, and it's all the more intense for it. He's also unafraid to try and one-up his preceding Bourne directors in terms of show-stopping camerawork, as evidenced in a farmhouse sequence punctuated with a wonderfully staged, single-take shot where Renner scales an exterior wall, leaps through an upstairs window, and blows an enemy away.
Like The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Legacy rides on its guy-girl chemistry, and replacing Damon and Franka Potente's tender rapport is the convincing back-and-forth shared between Renner and Weisz; they're both perfectly cast and well matched. But the film's narrative complications arise once they're given time to figure out Outcome's conspiracy. The luxury of simply continuing already laid-out conflicts doesn't exist here like it did in the prior Bourne movies, which benefitted from allowing Damon to pick apart C.I.A. antagonists viewers knew and accepted as his combatants; in The Bourne Legacy, Gilroy stumbles by trying too hard to introduce Cross' unique complications while adding upon the issues Jason Bourne had contended with, resulting in a convoluted universe that seems more in need of DVD supplement explanations than a fifth movie.
But, truth be told, The Bourne Legacy could have been the action genre's answer to Son of the Mask in lesser hands; fortunately, Renner is more charismatic than Jamie Kennedy in his sleep, and the creative minds involved here are of an esteemed pedigree. Through his impeccable cast and the onslaught of thrilling adrenaline-kicking moments (a motorcycle chase, for example, on the streets of Manila, Philippines, is quite outstanding), Gilroy preserved the Bourne series gold standard for brainy escapism, even if a welcome bonus for fans and not a sequel-ready reinvention.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)