There are good reasons to go out and see The Bourne Legacy in theaters this Friday, but the action isn’t one of them. This might seem like a bit of a problem for a series that is built around a genetically enhanced badass super-soldier, but don’t overlook the first portion of that statement: there are reasons to get out to see The Bourne Legacy. And good ones at that.
Our first peek at Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross is an opening shot that mirrors the concluding shot in The Bourne Ultimatum, which happens to have been our last look at Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne in the flesh. An upward-looking shot of a motionless human form submerged underwater, his features masked in silhouette. The body awakens in a burst of motion, only instead of swimming off as Bourne did in Ultimatum, it pushes up to and through the surface to reveal a bearded Renner in a lake ringed by snow.
It’s not long before we realize that Legacy is dealing with a very different protagonist. Cross is a member of the program just like Bourne was, only he’s fully aware of who he is and what sort of things he’s tasked with doing. We learn quickly that he’s got more of an independent streak than his super agent compatriots, and it’s that attitude which ultimately protects him and sets much of the movie’s larger narrative in motion.
Moving away from the blank slate and endless unanswered questions that was Damon’s amnesiac is a smart move. Renner’s got a lot of personality and charm, and while he’s not without questions of his own, we get a much surer sense of character from his performance. Cross isn’t cocky, but he knows he’s the best at what he does.
Legacy is largely the Renner show, which unfortunately leaves little room for co-stars Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton to stretch out. Both are vital to the story, but they end up filling largely one-dimensional supporting roles as Renner steals the spotlight.
For Weisz, her Dr. Marta Shearing is one of the key scientists on Operation Blackbriar, the super-soldier program that was at the heart of the plot in Ultimatum. When the project is shut down as a result of Bourne’s actions — a clever bit of narrative crossover, though not quite as elegant as the bridge between Supremacy and Ultimatum — she ends up on the run with Cross.
Playing alongside Cross, Shearing is frequently relegated to the role of distressed damsel, or at least confused and scared damsel. She has a handful of strong moments during the final act, but much of Weisz’s performance is built around following Cross’ lead.
Norton sits at the other side of the movie’s chase, shifting pawns and speaking at a gatling gun’s pace as he works to undo the series of events set in motion in the final moments of Ultimatum. He’s the sort of shadowy government figure who can say “no” to three-star generals and ignore first amendment rights. He’s not evil, he’s just doing his job.
That point is hammered home again and again, so much so that you don’t ever really see him as villainous. His character has a name — Eric Byer — but it’s immaterial to the point that you’ll forget it. Norton’s Byer is less a person and more a personification of a raft of conspiracy theories. We are introduced to him as this all-seeing, all-knowing government player who is confounded when his omniscience fails him in the pursuit of a lowly scientist. It’s only much later that he realizes who is helping her.
This plays havoc with the sense of conflict and the pacing in The Bourne Legacy. Writers Dan and Tony Gilroy (Tony also directed) deserve credit for making the ride as enjoyable as it is despite the near-absence of any direct threat. The story moves along in fits and starts, with a rapid pace at the top and bottom being stretched to support a sagging, meandering second act.
The directing Gilroy (Duplicity, Michael Clayton) also deserves a few knocks for his take on Bourne-style action. The two Greengrass-directed efforts struck a masterful balance between coherence and the sort of close-up, quick cutting that the series in known for. Gilroy, on the other hand, drops the ball. His close-ups are a little too close, his cuts are a little too quick, and all of it loses any sense of coherence thanks to an overuse of handheld cameras.
The final action sequence, a chase through the crowded streets of Manila, is the worst offender of them all. What should have been a gripping pursuit is rendered unintelligibly impotent. Not only is the entire sequence nearly impossible to follow, it’s also saddled with the late introduction of a character whose sole purpose in the film is to provide a physical challenge for Cross.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Renner. Seeing him flex in this sort of starring role is a real treat, especially after this summer’s The Avengers, which was forced by necessity to bow to the demands of an ensemble cast. Renner demonstrated his talents long ago in The Hurt Locker, but Legacy proves that he’s got the chops and the personality to deliver as an action star.
Jason Bourne is all over Legacy, both in still photos and in direct references, but Damon never shows his actual face. That turns out to be an okay thing too, thanks largely to Renner. The script from the Gilroy brothers isn’t without its flaws, but it does a wonderful job of expanding the Bourne universe as we’ve come to know it.
If you’ve been following the story up to this point, then you’ll definitely want to check out the modified direction in The Bourne Legacy. Just be sure to dial down any expectations of an action-packed ride. There’s a lot to enjoy here, more than you might expect, but check your expectations for high-intensity in-your-face action at the door.