Guest Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy
Remember when Good Will Hunting won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay back in 1997? It was the pivotal moment for a pair of young Hollywood hopefuls: friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon would see their lives soar into the spotlight. Soon after, Affleck was expected to become the “star” of the duo, and lead roles in Armageddon, Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil followed. The problem was that he was starring in Armageddon, Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil, and when you add Gigli (often referred to as one of the worst films of all time) to the mix, Affleck’s popularity fell to epically low levels. While he eventually managed to redeem himself on the other side of the camera by directing great films like Gone Baby Gone and The Town, something odd had happened.
Damon, despite being nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting, wasn’t expected to be a big deal. If anything, he probably would have been a consistent supporting actor, perhaps gotten a few more nominations, but nothing special. His casting in two films forced a change in that perception. The first was Oceans 11, which placed Damon on equal ground with proven stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. The second, and possibly more shocking, was Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, based on the popular book series by Robert Ludlum. Suddenly, the nice guy known for his nuanced performances could do things with his hands and a pen that were, in all honesty, a bit difficult to watch. Suddenly it was Damon, not Affleck, who was the action star, as he headlined two Bourne sequels directed by Paul Greengrass. He was even supposed to star in the upcoming sequel/spinoff The Bourne Legacy, but backed out when production ceased and Greengrass publically stated that he would not direct another sequel. Eventually Legacy was started up again, this time helmed by series co-writer Tony Gilroy and starring up-and-coming Jeremy Renner.
For Renner, this place would be similar to where Damon’s career was a decade ago. He has received nothing but praise for his performances, two Oscar nominations (for The Hurt Locker and The Town), and a steadily rising popularity for his roles in Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Avengers. Now he’s trying to make his mark as a true action star, and what better way to do so than to be cast in a franchise that regularly pits genetically-enhanced men against one another, often to the death? As The Bourne Legacy proves however, things don’t always work out the way you imagine.
Unlike the previous Bourne films, Legacy feels much more about government conspiracy than it does about action. In it, Operation Outcome is a Department of Defense black ops program that has been spun off from the Treadstone and Operation Blackbriar (the major villains of the former trilogy) projects. Outcome produces top-notch infiltration ‘units’ who so far have been used to successfully spy on unpredictable nations such as North Korea and Pakistan. To be kept in line, they are given pills that genetically alter their chromosomes and improve their physical and mental capabilities but have harsh side effects if doses are missed. One Outcome agent is Alex Cross (Renner), a troublesome young man who joined the program to fight for his country but has come to question the activities of the ultra-secret organization. When Jason Bourne threatens to out Treadstone to the media, Outcome chief Eric Byer (Edward Norton) orders the wiping of the third program as a precaution – effectively ordering the murder of agents, scientists and other personnel – and to restart elsewhere. Cross however refuses to go down easily, and teams up with another survivor, virologist Dr. Marta Sheering (Rachel Weisz) to hopefully break him of his dependence on the pills that Outcome has supplied him.
Yup, that’s it. The whole film is about Cross overcoming his drug reliance, with a bit of government cover-up thrown in to officially link the story to the Bourne story. I was expecting a reunion of sorts, as the multitude of characters from the first trilogy focus their attentions on a new hero, but Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn and David Strathairn garner only cameo appearances. Instead the film focuses on new “patriots” Norton and Stacy Keach, as government heads even higher up the food chain than anything Jason Bourne ever faced. That’s not a complaint; Norton especially takes what could have been boring, behind-the-curtain look at what Byer calls “a necessary evil” in protecting the United States and makes it a legitimately exciting plot device, albeit one that seems to only exist in a lone building. Only one major bad guy, the “Terminator”-like LARX-03 (played by Predators’ Louis Ozawa Changchien) ever gets out of the office, meaning that Cross is almost never pitted against anything that would represent a challenge.
In fact, there’s so much going on in each scene of The Bourne Legacy that you could be forgiven for not realizing that there’s not much actually happening. Each scene is just one more escape for Cross and Sheering, intercut with scenes of Outcome searching for them. There is a lot of fun in seeing Renner in action, but it simply doesn’t happen often enough, especially for a two-hour-plus movie. Gilroy doesn’t have enough experience directing action, and that becomes obvious with his tendency to shoot so close as to obscure what’s happening on the screen. That’s too bad, as some of the film’s best moments still involve Cross kicking butt, whether or not the opposition is anything to speak of. The focus on the government cover-up is more reminiscent of Gilroy’s previous directorial efforts, most notably Michael Clayton, than anything Greengrass ever did. He also has the tendency to over-explain his details, as when Weisz’s character plots out point to point the science behind Outcome’s genetic improvements for no apparent reason. Gilroy does have the talent to be a decent Hollywood director, but perhaps this franchise was a bit much for him to handle, given the state of the final product.
There is a lot of potential in The Bourne Legacy, despite Gilroy’s failings. Renner is a natural as the film’s lead, and you couldn’t ask for a better antagonist than Edward Norton in any major motion picture. But viewers will likely be turned off by the sometimes-confusing plot twists, reliance on the original Bourne movies for important references, sudden-stop ending and – oh right – no Bourne outside of a few mere mentions. More action and less exposition would be my prescription for any sequels, and Gilroy would have to either up his game or step aside and let another take command. The Bourne Legacy is neither a great film nor a horror show, but if the Bourne’s legacy is to survive, the next film will have to be a step above what we have been given here. Mediocrity will only get you so far.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out Hello Mr. Anderson for his latest film reviews.