13 August 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Bourne Legacy

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The Bourne Legacy, Paramount’s attempt to extend their successful Jason Bourne franchise—based very loosely on the novels of Robert Ludlum—does give the impression of the first film of a trilogy. It feels like The Bourne Identity (2002), the inaugural movie of the Matt Damon trilogy: it’s a starting point with some excellent sections, but also the nagging sense that all the finest moments are yet to come. Overall, there is something slight about the enterprise, making it a minor disappointment for a film I hoped would salvage August. Will Expendables 2 be this year’s “August Surprise”? I never thought that might be a possibility at the beginning of the season.

Doug Liman directed The Bourne Identity, but it was Paul Greengrass sitting in the folding green chair for the next two films, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and it was his work that shoved the series into the high octane world of dazzling foot pursuits, close-quarter pummelings, shaky-cam car chases, and earnest people trying to get control of the world by walking fast while talking on cell phones. And audiences loved it. Those two films are the defining spy movies of the decade, easily besting the re-boot of James Bond (in the Jason Bourne mold, natch).

The Bourne Legacy, under the direction of Tony Gilroy, who wrote all three previous entries and made an impression as a director with Michael Clayton in 2007, collects the elements that made its predecessors work: whipcrack action with jittery cameras, raw global espionage, and top-level actors playing the gray-shaded manipulators attached to their phones and computer displays. What it doesn’t have is a compelling enough character story at the center to hold it together, or a resolution that satisfies beyond the need to signal a sequel.

As a way to continue the franchise without its title character, The Bourne Legacy latched onto the right idea. Trying to shoehorn more recovered memories into Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne would stretched credulity to the point of it snapping back so hard it might take somebody’s eye out. Plus, Damon had no interest playing the role again, and re-casting would’ve doubled the already dubious conceit. Legacy instead goes for the solution from The Lost World: Jurassic Park: you see, it turns out that there was this other super-agent program taking place behind the curtains of the earlier movies, and now that this Jason Bourne business has burst out of the out of the bottle, the second program is about to blow sky-high as well.

Making the comparison to The Lost World may sound like damning the movie, since Michael Crichton’s “Site B” idea for a dino-sequel was a notoriously terrible one. (And since Spielberg ditched most of Crichton’s novel, why didn’t he throw out Site B as well?) But The Bourne Legacy doesn’t suffer much from this new backdrop that the Treadstone Program responsible for creating Jason Bourne has a hidden twin called “Operation Outcome.” Government conspiracies nested within conspiracies, hiding from each other for plausible deniability, is an easy sell, especially with a skilled political writer like Gilroy on the script. Adding a science-fiction angle to Outcome, which uses drugs (referred to as “chems”) instead of psychological conditioning to create super-agents, was also a wise choice, opening up new eras for exploration. The concept sound like a bleak take on Captain America.

But The Bourne Legacy doesn’t explore many of its possibilities; if the filmmakers had focused on the story as a “dark Captain America,” it might have benefitted the movie overall. The Bourne Legacy delivers the standard thrills of the series, with fast-edited action set-pieces involving a couple on the run. It engages at the superficial level while on screen, but the moment after the abrupt, sequel-prep ending, it all feels empty. It seems as if nothing really got done, despite all the business in front of the unstable cameras. The Bourne Legacy is half a story, and painfully feels like it as the credits roll.
The plot overlaps with events of The Bourne Ultimatum, and if you haven’t seen that recently, you might want to read over its Wikipedia summary before checking out the new film. As Jason Bourne closes in on Manhattan, the dark CIA masters of Operation Outcome get the sweats about the consequences of their ties to Treadstone—especially after a YouTube leak. Retired USAF Colonel Eric Byer (Ed Norton) takes over the cleanup, which involves wiping out all the agents under the program, as well as the doctors who developed them.

However, “Outcome #3” Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) escapes the slaughter while he is on an exercise in the Alaskan wilds. Understandably upset about his bosses trying to liquidate him, but also dependent on getting more of his chems, Renner makes for civilization. He eventually teams up with Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), an escapee from the medical-side purge of the program and the doctor who original worked with him.

Although the mega-scale action piece comes at the end of the film, The Bourne Legacy clicks the best in these early scenes. Cross’s wilderness survival, an encounter with killer helicopters, a brutal ploy using a wolf (more than fulfilling what I hoped we’d get from The Grey and didn’t), a massacre at a lab, and a labyrinthine shoot-out in decaying mansion make for smart thrills that promise to keep escalating.

But it never happens. Once Aaron Cross connects with the realistically terrified Dr. Shearing (Weisz is excellent, as always), The Bourne Legacy loses energy because it won’t delve deeper into its own implications, especially regarding what the Operation Outcome actually does to its subjects. There’s some interesting medical talk about how the chems work, but not much that matters for the characters or their behavior. Cross and Shearing abruptly go on a quest to Manilla to the drug-producing factory. At this point, Ed Norton’s part of the story becomes more interesting, which is the reverse of what should be happening.
Not that I mind spending time with Ed Norton flexing his authoritarian power. Norton is another in the line of great actors (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Straithairn, Albert Finney) who have taken on the roles of the spymaster villains of the series. The power all these actors had in their parts was the ability to project certainty and lethal efficiency while showing an awareness that they are, as Norton’s character says, the “sin-eaters”: the people who perform the unethical, bloody work of the world so everyone else can go to sleep at night thinking they’re the good guys. Norton only has one scene with Renner, the flashback where he explains the sin-eater concept, but he’s such a commanding and floating presence that he works as the adversary without needing more than a minute of face time with protagonist. Norton receives fine support in his scenes from Donna Murphy and a wonderfully grisly-looking Stacy Keach.

Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross is refreshingly not a straight carbon copy of Jason Bourne, and the movie plays to Renner’s strengths. Where Matt Damon’s Bourne was given a chilly robotic exterior, Renner is a more rough and desperate figure, someone who acts believably confused while still capable of lunging up the side of a house in three seconds flat to blast a clean shot through an assassin’s head. But Cross could have been explored more, especially when it comes to the chems. How much does the Outcome treatment really enhance his abilities? What might the consequences of losing those abilities be? The film ignores this Flowers for Outcome possibility almost entirely, which ditches much of what makes Outcome an intriguing project. There isn’t much in outward capabilities to distinguish Aaron Cross from Jason Bourne, making the quest that throws the hero and heroine across the planet to track down the source of the chems little more than an excuse to globe-trot to the big action climax.
And that climax... yeah, it’s a good piece of work. It also arrives too close to the end credits (I was ready for the story to get into a new gear at this point, and then suddenly it was all over) and relies on the hasty introduction of a third super-secret program in order to bring in an new assassin to chase our heroes. An uninteresting assassin. Like the whole movie, the climax is engaging while it’s there, but seems meager when it’s done.

The worst criticism I can lob at The Bourne Legacy is that, even though it feels like a starting point for a new series—only half of movie—I’m not thrilled about seeing a sequel with Aaron Cross. (And, with a strong $38 million opening weekend, there will be a sequel.) Many correct choices were made in trying to construct a further “Bourne” series, but the choices added up to my realizing that I’m satisfied with watching the many films the success of the franchise inspired, such as the criminally underrated Green Zone, or anything else with Liam Neeson running around Europe trashing people. The Bourne Legacy is better than most August movies should be, but it is not good enough to stand along with the two films that came before it, nor good enough to justify making two more.

Of course, if the next two “Aaron Cross” films end up fantastic... well, I’ll walk back that last statement, but I doubt it will make me love The Bourne Legacy in retrospect.

(In case you were wondering: There is a novel in the Jason Bourne series called The Bourne Legacy, published in 2004. Eric Van Lustbader wrote the book as the beginning of continuation of the series after Ludlum’s death. It has no connection to this movie. However, if the movie series continues to copy the titles of the book, expect the next film to be titled The Bourne Betrayal, and the third The Bourne Sanction, whether they make sense or not.)

My Summer Movie Scorecard
The Bourne Legacy . . . . . . . . . . B-
Total Recall ‘12 . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Dark Knight Rises . . . . . . . . . . A-
The Amazing Spider-Man . . . . . . . . . . C
Brave . . . . . . . . . . B+
Prometheus . . . . . . . . . . B
Snow White and the Huntsman . . . . . . . . . . B
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: The Expendables 2, and then my summer is done.