Friday, 17 August 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: The Bourne Legacy

Following 2007's definitive The Bourne Ultimatum, director Tony Gilroy brings us The Bourne Legacy,  an enjoyable and well executed but ultimately shallow and unnecessary addition to the Bourne franchise. Released in 2002, Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity was an unexpectedly slick, engaging and taut little spy thriller, with a smartly delivered central premise, likeable lead in Matt Damon and a sense of action and spectacle grounded in reality. Paul Greengrass' sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum respectively, elevated the series to one of the best action franchises ever devised and gave us the first truly great trilogy of the new millennium.  

The Bourne Ultimatum satisfactorily concluded Jason Bourne's journey, but this didn't stop Universal  ordering another addition to the franchise, this time sans Damon or Greengrass. Instead, proceedings see The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner arrive as Aaron Cross, a souped-up version of Jason Bourne, enhanced by chemical supplements on which he has become cripplingly dependent. The 'legacy' in the title refers to the fact that the actions of Bourne in Ultimatum (which happens in parallel to Legacy) have spurred the Agency to destroy all evidence of their nefarious assassin programs, which includes terminating Cross and his co-agents.  It's a solid, if rather uninspired, basis for exploring the ripple effect of Bourne's actions, and Gilroy goes to great lengths to remind us that the events in Legacy are a direct result of Ultimatum. He does this mainly by periodically splicing key moments of agency-good-egg Pam Landy's ongoing whistle blowing with the main story, but they never really connect in anything other than the most superficial way, and feel artificially overlayed on to a story that really has very little to do with Jason Bourne.

The best action films tend to offer the simplest plots: a cop is trapped in a building full of terrorists and has to stop them; Nazis are trying to take over the world by stealing a magic box and have to be stopped by a man in a cool hat; a cyborg is coming to kill the mother of mankind's future saviour and can't be stopped. And so it is (or should be) with Bourne. After all of the shady government dealings and double-crossings are stripped away, the original Bourne films offered a similarly simple but effective story: a man who can't remember who he is escapes from people trying to kill him for reasons he doesn't understand. The basic premise of the original Bourne trilogy offers both intriguing mystery and tremendous narrative momentum, and the lack of that kind of singular narrative is one of Legacy's major failings, instead contriving a drug-dependency plot in order to keep the story moving forward. This is most apparent in the final scene, which offers no resolution beyond clearing up Cross's chemical dependency. I'm not even clear whether the baddies are still chasing Cross, and the Pam Landy indictment sub-plot seems no further forward than it was at the beginning. It's shameless sequel-baiting, and the re-using of the Moby theme at the end simply underscores that this is by far the most unsatisfying conclusion in the franchise.

Renner and Norton square off.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of Bourne-esque thrills to be had throughout the 2 hour-plus running time. In physical ability, for example, Renner is more than a worthy replacement for Damon as the film's protagonist, proving himself in several well-staged and visceral action sequences that sit very well against those of the original trilogy. In addition, Rachel Weisz is effective as scientist Marta Shearing, offering  one of the film's few original ideas in the film's exploration of her character's moral culpability and complicity. This is the theme that could have allowed Legacy to transcend its limitations as simply the fourth part of the Bourne Trilogy, but unfortunately it's underwritten, hinted at only in a few scenes with Weisz, and in a flashback scene with Edward Norton's agency honcho Eric Byer. Although oddly disconnected from the rest of the film this scene offers one of the film's best lines: in an early mission, Cross expresses consternation over what he is being asked to do in the name of patriotism. Byer responds with frighteningly convincing concision, 'we are morally indefensible, and absolutely necessary'. It's a shame that Legacy doesn't offer us a deeper exploration of the moral grey areas hinted at in declarations like Byer's, and instead seems more concerned with covering the now well-worn Bourne film hallmarks of gritty action and car chases. 

In Aaron Cross, there's an admirable attempt to distance Renner's character from Jason Bourne: Cross comes to us amnesia free and fully formed as a trained killer, but as a result we lose the central compelling premise of the previous films' search for Bourne's true identity. Instead, we have a functional but bland chase  story around the globe for the chems that will keep Cross in peak fighting condition. Legacy's plot gives plenty of opportunities for stylised rooftop chases, vehicular carnage and bone-snapping violence, but by film number four, these once-fresh staples of the franchise, while still extremely well-executed and visceral, have become predictable and formulaic. More engaging is the relationship between Cross and Weisz's Marta, which develops with an organic warmth that is reminiscent of the Bourne / Marie tryst in Identity, and rarely feeling derivative or contrived.

The Bourne Legacy is far from the disaster that it could have been, and, like its titular assassin, executes its duties as an action film competently, concisely and with deadly precision. Making Legacy a spin-off, rather than a direct sequel was a smart move, leaving the original trilogy (mostly) well alone, while transparently setting up the potential for a new franchise. But for a property that effectively reshaped modern action cinema, Gilroy's addition to the series is a significant step down from Greengrass and Liman's entries, both in terms of thematic depth and narrative clarity. That said, as a stand-alone film it works well, and although nowhere near as compelling as Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross gives us enough humanity in his assassin to just about care what happens to him. The Bourne Legacy is ultimately an unnecessary cash-grab for the studio; an action film slapped with the name and stylistic trappings of Bourne, but this does not deter from the fact that it remains largely a morally ambiguous, exciting and smart addition to the Bourne universe. 

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