Just before I sat down to watch Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy (2012) it was announced that the Boston Red Sox were in talks with the Los Angeles Dodgers in a trade that would send three of Boston’s most expensive stars to LA. What Boston was getting back from the Dodgers was pretty underwhelming for their roster in 2012 but by getting those contracts off their books they must have felt that it would help them improve for the future. The Dodger players heading to Beantown were a collection of midlevel big leaguers, a few prospects and a player to be named later, which is common in a big trade like this. A team knows they aren’t going to strike gold with the player to be named later, but sometimes that player turns out to be a nice little addition. There’s a ceiling with that player, but you were already happy with the trade so whatever the player to be named later turns out to be is icing on the cake. It’s a kicker.
During every summer season, we give Hollywood all that money for a package that isn’t much more inspired than what the Dodgers were planning on giving the Red Sox. Every year we can anticipate a new entry from a big franchise like Batman or the Avengers and hope for something a little more substantial like a Prometheus; there will be a few prospects that bottom out (this year, most of them starred Taylor Kitsch); then there’s the player to be named later. An episode in theBourne series is that player. If ever there was a franchise with a ceiling, it’s this one, but toward the end of the summer, it’s not a bad kicker.
The series, of which The Bourne Legacy is the fourth entry, is made at a certain technical level that is quite high. There’s typically a big showcase fistfight and a rousing vehicle chase, a trend that Gilroy’s film continues, and quite well. The Bourne Legacy and the series in general are terribly inoffensive both as a product and an artistic endeavor, but I simply find them to be dull and joyless. The first one told the story of a man who wakes up finding he doesn’t remember who he is but discovers that he possesses incredible combat skills, skills that were instilled in him by the government that is now trying to chase him down. The irony there is that the movies are completely amnesiac to me. I pride myself in remembering details about the movies I see, even if I see them once, but I’ve seen all four Bournemovies and I will be damned if I can relay one plot detail to distinguish The Bourne Supremacy (2004) from The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). I just saw The Bourne Legacy and already the plot is slipping away from me, like waking up after a prosaic dream.
Part of this is due to the writing and the casting. The scripts for the series (all by Gilroy, though this is his first time directing) aren’t especially great at defining the characters. We know Jason Bourne pretty well as played by Matt Damon in the previous three films, but the rest of the universe is populated with nebulous government types, and the franchise likes to give us two nebulous government types when one would do. Bonus points for casting them with actors who resemble each other. In the past we’ve been given Chris Cooper, Scott Glenn and David Strathairn as the day-to-day operators. Strathairn appears in this one to be duplicated by Edward Norton. The mastermind bureaucrats are invariably played by one or two conservatively coiffed bastions of Caucasionness, a roster which has included Brian Cox and Albert Finney and here has Stacy Keach added to its ranks. Brian Dennehy should have his agent pushing him for episode five.
To make matters worse, the screenplays operate assuming that we are intimately familiar with the minute details of the previous films, something made impossible given the series’ consistency in being emotionally sterile. It’s true, one’s enjoyment of The Bourne Legacy is not going to nosedive if it’s one’s first foray into the Bourne franchise, but one should be prepared to be a little confused. For example, this fourth film doesn’t feature an appearance by Jason Bourne, but he sure is mentioned a lot by the government operatives, always in chilly tones that Bourne is “still out there.” Less mentioned is Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, who dominates the screentime but whose name and its half dozen aliases don’t dominate the screenplay so during the first half of the movie you don’t know who he is—he is the character to be named later. In fact, it’s difficult to be sure that Renner isn’t playing Jason Bourne, and then afterward it’s difficult to remember what his name is. Not great for the hero of the movie.
Cross is a Bourne-like agent, created by the government to be a superman as part of a program that the head honchos now find to be too dangerous and want to shut down, thus making Cross a hunted outlaw. He was given extraordinary abilities thanks to pharmaceutical miracles housed in tiny colored pills which have the kind of effect that spinach did for Popeye. To try to ascertain what happened to him, he goes to the lab where these pills were developed and steals away with the only person who can help him, the brilliant chemist Marta (Rachel Weisz) who is also being pursued now that the program is being shut down. Together they stay one step ahead of the government on their journey.
I don’t want to take work away from beautiful actresses, especially ones as appealing as Weisz, but just once I’d like to see the dashing action hero find out the only person who can save him is not a pulchritudinous young woman but a schlubby balding middle-aged man. When Weisz is clinging to Renner on the back of a motorcycle, I kept thinking how great it would be if it was actually Paul Giamotti.
Just the same, Renner and Weisz are very good in the movie, bringing some pop to an otherwise dry endeavor. Renner, whose signature intensity seemed at odds with the silliness of The Avengers (2012), is right at home here, and Weisz can bring weight and credibility to some of the more out-there details of the medical advances. While the two are working toward their goal, we’re treated to endless dark government rooms where men in muted colors aggressively discuss what needs to happen next without quite defining what the consequences are if they don’t, neutering much of the action. First they go after Cross with drones, then there seems to be an endless cavalcade of secret government projects designed just for this very predicament. A sort of secret-government-project-ex-m
The movie has a good escape set-piece in the middle, an aboveboard, if overlong, chase sequence that ends the film, and one jarring portion in the first hour, that given recent real life shootings, takes on an extra weight, but beyond that it suffers from the same ailments that its earlier iterations do. No matter how technically competent the movie is (and The Bourne Legacy is splendidly put together), the story insists on being scrubbed clean of anything worth getting attached to. The series always had a ceiling; it also has a basement.