Directed by Tony Gilroy
The spy saga that began a decade ago with Jason Bourne and Operation Treadstone continues in this solid expansion of the sordid world of black ops – it ably captures the tone of the Bourne trilogy and is a justifiable addition, opening the door to further films in the series.
In 2002 ‘The Bourne Identity’ burst onto the film scene like an MMA fighter, low to the ground, taut, muscled, and lean. Shying away from the extravagant and extroverted espionage films of James Bond, and the bombastic and hyper ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘True Lies’, it showed us a man abandoned, with few resources beyond his own exceptional skills, simply trying to survive long enough to find out who he is. Gone were the gadgets and most of the girls, the smart quips and fast cars, the cockiness and swagger. Just a tough operative, operating correctly.
The Bourne franchise reflects a grittier world, with shady government agencies using people as weapons, ruthless and corrupt politicians exploiting patriotism for their own ends, and national security trumping just about every civil right and moral code. The films aim for a realism that most Hollywood espionage films eschewed but has now become de rigeur: claustrophobic and hectic camera-work, grimy colour palettes, grim and run down locales; the violence is brutal, economical and looks like it bloody hurts – the antagonist seems mortal and vulnerable; he also has some gnarly Macgyver skills, improvising with real world devices rather than provided with fancy toys. This world feels closer to yours and therefore more thrilling somehow. It isn’t showy or flash, it’s straight up.
When I first heard that Tony Gilroy was on board to direct it felt like the right move. Having written the screenplays for the first three films (for which he was widely praised, deftly distilling the complex Robert Ludlum novels with the right mix of action and gravity for the silver screen), few would be in a better position to continue the story of the Bourne universe. He has also proven to be a solid director, with ‘Michael Clayton’ a particular highlight. Gilroy has increased the scale in this film. The stakes are much higher – we discover the black op programs of the trilogy are just a minor piece of the puzzle. The locations in which the action takes place are more vast and expansive – less cramped European alleyways and utility corridors, more Alaskan mountains and Canadian forests. The budget has been increased and it shows. The fight scene choreography isn’t quite as eye-popping as the previous films, but the action sequences are more grand in scope and handled gamely, and the film deftly cuts between the action in the field and the surveillance teams in their dark spaces to good effect.
‘Legacy’ overlaps with the final film of the trilogy, ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, and there are sufficient loose threads to justify the connection between this and the previous films, utilising freshly shot footage re-using previous characters (Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, David Strathairn and Joan Allen all reprise their roles) as well as expository footage from previous films. There may be some confusion for those new to the Bourne universe but the connections are presented broadly enough to provide understandable momentum for the plot, and the film reels along at a sufficient pace to keep us hooked but not snap the line.
One element which the Bourne films tend to excel at is keeping the audience in the dark when necessary, building an appropriate tension and drawing us in. ‘Legacy’ continues in this vein. We know the stakes but the outcome is often genuinely uncertain. This, along with a hero who can (and frequently will) take hits, fall down, have crippling flashbacks and bleed, keeps the tension high. There is a legitimate anxiety that he will fail, and so when he succeeds it is all the more compelling.
A new dimension to the ‘Bourne’ conspiracy is added in the form of chemical and genetic manipulation. This generation of assassins is enhanced by a drug regimen of physical and mental boosters, which they need to take regularly or suffer debilitating consequences – a way to keep these killers leashed. As the film unfolds new research is using viral vectors to introduce permanent genetic enhancements, as well as reducing empathy, a potential weakness in an assassin. These are interesting ideas that touch on contemporary issues, but beyond the purposes of the plot there is little exploration of the ethical implications and the science of it is a touch ludicrous.
While Matt Damon’s convincing take on a vulnerable killing machine really made the trilogy pop, I can think of few actors better suited than Jeremy Renner to continue the tale. He’s got the physique and physicality, the acting range, the intensity and devotion to craft. As Aaron Cross he presents a different antagonist to Jason Bourne and so takes the tone of the film in a different direction. For one, he knows his own identity. Hence, he’s more self-assured, rogueish and talkative than Bourne was – a bit more human. Whereas Bourne’s core motivation was a violation of identity and his search for answers (from where a more deep-seated empathy arrives), Cross is a free-thinker who’s had enough of the leash. His questioning nature gets him in trouble but it also saves his life. Beyond the differing character traits, he’s got the same cunning and directness in combat, and the same inventive approach to the terrain and equipment around him.
The plot revolves around the possible revelation of the CIA’s entire black ops system due to the Jason Bourne situation. This has shocked the CIA into shutting down several programs in order to quarantine them from other valuable programs and ‘assets’ (government assassins). These ‘shut downs’ are to be surgical and brutal: personnel eradicated by any means, all traces immolated, the press fed mollifying stories. Edward Norton heads the taskforce, and is effective as the cold and methodical team leader. It’s a small and surprising role but he nails it.
Thanks in part to his own initiative and good fortune Cross survives the initial cull, but turns up on the CIA’s radar when he tries to obtain drugs from one of the projects scientists (Rachel Weisz). From then on they are marked for death and so begins the great Bourne staple: a worldwide chase. (If you were cynical you might sum up the Bourne franchise as one long chase scene, but it’s perhaps one of the reasons each film is bursting with tension.) On the face of it, it may seem that Rachel Weisz doesn’t have much to do, but she brings some believable pathos to her role as an unassuming scientist whose world is turned upside down. The terror she conveys is intense, and her adaptation and resourcefulness is convincing. She is not a damsel in distress. With Norton and Weisz, the Bourne movies continue the admirable habit of casting brilliant actors in auxiliary roles. You just can’t ignore the benefits of having genuine talent on the screen.
Apparently when talk of a fourth Bourne film first came up Tony Gilroy joked that it should be called ‘The Bourne Redundancy’, but fortunately it avoids that trap. There are all the positive hallmarks of the Bourne films: thrilling and economical brutality, craft and guile, clandestine meetings, emotional gravity, mad stunts and whiplash chase scenes. ‘The Bourne Legacy’ grabbed me from the opening and didn’t let go until the closing scenes, which were a touch anti-climactic. I was waiting for Cross to have some kind of major confrontation but the ending snuck up rather quickly for a 135 minute film. There is the lingering sensation that expectations weren’t quite met and things are left unfinished.Nevertheless, it is a smart, muscular action film in it’s own right, and I would heartily recommend it as an above average action/thriller.