Saturday, May 18, 2013
The Bourne Legacy
The first act of The Bourne Legacy, director Tony Gilroy's sideways reboot of the Bourne franchise with Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross as the new lead, revolves very heavily around a drone strike carried out against Cross. With the Treadstone program from the first three films falling apart around them thanks to Jason Bourne's having gone rogue, the people who run even more top-secret clandestine personnel programs at the CIA, particularly Eric Byer (Edward Norton), have decided that the programs, and everyone involved in them, need to be terminated. Cross and another agent within his program (Oscar Isaac) are targeted for assassination by Byer and his team, and a drone is used to fire a missile into the cabin in which they are temporarily staying.
The Bourne films are, ultimately, about inwardly-turned post-9/11 paranoia. Where the era of classic spy films was mostly about the fear of the Other (the Soviet Union or some related stand-in, and then some terrorist group or other after its collapse), this series of films is about the fear of ourselves, of the power we have granted the government in the name of defending America and how little ability we really have to step on the brakes with any of it. These films are suffused with a dread of government-backed technology, programs that use neuroscience and biotechnology to create assassins and supersoldiers, and the use of a recognizable piece of controversial technology like a drone draws the connection explicitly between the fictional world of the film and the very real world in which we live.
Cross has been physically and mentally enhanced chemically by project Outcome, the sister program to Treadstone, and after he escapes the attack his path intertwines with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a researcher who is involved with the science behind Cross's chemical enhancement, and who has narrowly escaped being eliminated by Byer under the guise of a workplace shooting. Cross and Shearing travel to Manila, home to project Outcome's chemical manufacturing facility, in search of Cross's medications, as they are slowly but methodically tracked by Byer and his team, including an operative in an even higher security program (Louis Ozawa Changchien), project LARX.
Tony Gilroy wrote or co-wrote the first three Bourne movies and here he adds the title of director as well, taking over from the departed Paul Greengrass. It's always an open question with action films as to how much the script actually matters - for every Shane Black, who parlayed his distinctive voice as an action movie writer into a genuine name-brand, there are 10 writers like Steven E. de Souza, who co-wrote, among other things, both 48 Hours and Die Hard, not that you'd know that both of those films came from the same writer. Gilroy isn't a writer who is going to give you a lot of interesting turns of phrase, but he is one of the most gifted writers at crafting the mechanics of a taut thriller, and the way the Bourne Legacy accomplishes the twin goals of tying into the continuity of the earlier series while also striking out in an interesting new direction is remarkable in and of itself, before getting to the nuts and bolts of the film itself.
Because the Bourne Legacy is built much more on those plot mechanics than it is on raw action, and yet it still manages to move along at a brisk pace. The first act is a bit clunky, with the action ping-ponging between Byer in Washington, dealing with the fallout from Jason Bourne, and Cross in some sort of alpine retreat, not yet aware of the imminent danger he is in. The two halves of that equation don't fit together terribly well, with Cross' more action-heavy half ironically slowing the film down from Byer's pedal-to-the-metal energy. Norton is a notoriously difficult actor to work with, which is the only legitimate reason he doesn't work more often, because he has a preternatural ability to breathe life into even an underwritten character like Byer. Renner's performance is more along the path of mere adequacy - he's good enough at selling 21st century action-hero roles, but he doesn't bring a lot of charm to the proceedings. Weisz's character is the pivotal one plotwise, which makes it particularly unfortunate that she spends a lot of the film as baggage, following Cross' various enhanced-soldier orders and simply trying to stay alive; she falls very distinctly on the "escort mission" side of the Female Lead In An Action Movie spectrum. She's a smart and capable actress who is good in the role, but Gilroy could have tried to write his way around this cliche rather than through it.
I have gotten this far without mentioning the action in the film, and that is mostly because I didn't find any of it all that memorable. It gets the job done of moving the film along between conversations, but I found the conversations, and the plot, to be almost universally more interesting. Mediocre action in an action movie might sink a lesser film, but Gilroy's ideas here, and his ability to spin off this world in a fascinating new direction, manages to carry the day regardless of the fact that the action disappoints, which can either be taken as a great compliment for a film that resurrects a series that seemed dead while plugging directly into the current zeitgeist, or an indictment of a franchise which has lost its drive. I know which side I fall on. B+