Friday, August 10, 2012

Bourne-less Bourne film more than a shameless money grab

"The Bourne Legacy," the fourth film in the Jason Bourne series, doesn't actually star Matt Damon's Bourne. How does one make a Bourne film without Bourne? You center it on another super spy similar to Bourne and have Bourne's action in the previous films have a direct effect on this new character.

On the page, "Bourne Legacy" seems like nothing more than a shameless cash grab, but it is less shameless than you might think. "Bourne Legacy" runs congruent with the actions of "Bourne Ultimatum," the third film in the series, making it less a sequel or prequel and more a parallel-quel.

Jeremy Renner stars as Aaron Cross, one of a new breed of super spies created by a government program called Outcome. These agents are given pills that enhance mental and physical abilities. This is an intriguing idea of the government essentially getting these super agents addicted to a drug to keep them loyal. The amnesic agent of the previous films is replaced with an addict agent.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who has been a writer on all the previous films, doesn't spoon feed the audience. For a while, it is unclear what is going on or who Renner is. Whether "Legacy" takes too much time and is needlessly confusing is certainly up to debate. There are references to Treadstone and Black Briar, the government agencies from the previous films, and a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo that doesn't really add up too much. It eventually does make sense.

Basically, what the plot boils down to is that Bourne represents the failure of Treadstone, and Outcome fears there will be backlash once public gets more wind of that. The program head played by Edward Norton decides to dissolve Outcome and kill its field agents and anyone who knows too much information. That is a familiar plot device, but a cliche can still play if it is presented well and Gilroy does a reasonable job presenting it.

Aaron evades death and saves an Outcome doctor (Rachel Weisz) in hopes of her being able to get him his drug fix. She doesn't have any pills, but there is a way to makes his enhancements permanent.

As was true of "Michael Clayton" and "Duplicity," Gilroy's other films as writer and director, he is fascinated with showing the mechanisms behind things we normally don't see. There have always been scenes of men and women in back rooms surrounded by computers in these films, but Gilroy gives us even more of that this time. This seems to intrigue Gilroy far more than elaborate action scenes and indeed there is less action in "Legacy." There are a couple fight scenes spread throughout and an elaborate chase in the end that feels tagged on because it has to be there. It is well delivered and exciting, but slightly forced.

Every one of these films has one or two characters that stands in a room of monitors and barks random instructions. It has always been a thankless role filled by great actors (Chris Cooper and Brian Cox in "Identity," Cox and Joan Allen in "Supremacy" and Allen and David Strathairn in "Ultimatum"). This time it is Norton's turn. Norton is such a good actor that he makes his dialogue work better than it really should. He has a moment of wide-eyed shock and indignation that I was quite fond of.

Renner, who brought an unpredictable energy to films like "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town," seems a bit restricted having to play an agent trained to be cold and emotionless, but he does work some expressive moments in.

Aaron is a different personality-type than Bourne, who became increasingly more stoic as the series progressed. In early scenes in the film, Aaron is congenial and curious when he encounters another agent. He also provides a twitchy intensity when he starts jonesing for his meds. There's a backstory that helps add interesting shading to the character's motivation.

There is a definite break in the character though in the final scenes. The first hour of of film is more thoughtful and character driven. When Gilroy switches to the obligatory action finale, Aaron basically changes into Bourne. Which begs the question: Why did they bother spending the time to develop a character to toss out that development?

Even with its flaws, though, "Legacy" is a worthy expansion of the Bourne film universe and it would be interesting to see a Damon/Renner mash up in the future.

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