The original Bourne trilogy grew out of Doug Liman’s smoothly orchestrated, fashionably reserved 2001 adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel, and was expanded by Paul Greengrass into something less traditional. The template was boilerplate spy adventuring, but charged with elusive qualities of existential melancholy and pervasive paranoia, sustained by a coherent visual texture, a switchback-inducing interplay between Kafkaesque surveillance perspective and the fragmented, instinctive world of its super-soldier hero. Whilst more than a little over-regarded and already not ageing so well – six hours of cinema with perhaps less than half an hour of proper human interaction doesn't make for the sort of trilogy one can revisit endlessly – the series sustained a kind of “top that!” élan as it unfolded that was akin to great performance art, and is definitely destined to go down as a signal franchise of the millennium’s first decade. Tony Gilroy, co-author of the first three Bourne movies and director of the solid corporate thriller Michael Clayton (2007), makes a stab here at taking over the reins and giving the franchise a makeover by employing a fresh star to play a whole new lead character, and nominally adapting one of Eric Van Lustbader's continuations of Ludlum's originals. In other words, more of the same, but different. Trucking in the nervy, intelligent, far less boyishly handsome Jeremy Renner to play the faux-Bourne, Aaron Cross, The Bourne Legacy unfolds more or less simultaneously to and just after The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). As a terse and merciless wielder of patriotic expedience, retired Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is asked to stem the damage being done by Bourne’s rampages, and his former persecutor Pamela Landy’s (Joan Allen) attempts to blow the whistle on the whole dirty business to the media. Byer decides the only option is to destroy all of the enhanced warriors produced by the various connected projects of which Treadstone, the one which produced Bourne, is only one of many.
Aaron is one of these marked agents, belonging to another project called Outcome. Aaron is introduced on a survival training mission in the Canadian Rockies, engaged in what seems to be this year’s compulsory rite of passage for the approval of macho onanists: fighting off wolves. Aaron is characterised as intriguingly different to the general run of the enhanced agents. As an Iraq veteran who has been badly beaten about over the years, and who steps up for the team not to exorcise a heinous past but to become the man he feels he ought to be, operating with a real hunger for doing good, he’s talkative, restless and uncomfortable with the duplicitous extremes of his new profession. After emerging from the woods, he tries with little luck to get his taciturn contact, No. 3 (Oscar Isaac), to open up, and when a rocket fired off by a drone aircraft from the sky annihilates his contact and the cabin about him, Aaron responds with instantly provoked craft, bringing down the drone and then contriving a clever way of making his hunters think he’s dead. He returns to the US when he recognises a face on a news report: Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist with the labs that produced the ability-enhancing drugs for the Outcome subjects, whom Aaron had encountered several times, but who now has almost been the victim of the same assassination program Byer has initiated.
The Bourne Legacy does little to revise the essential formula of the series, to its detriment. The assumption that Greengrass capitalised on so well, that with set-up out of the way he could essentially reduce drama to a series of breathless, fleet-footed epigrams punctuating set-pieces of stalking, evasion, and ass-kicking, is difficult to append to a new character who faces a different, much less initially intriguing quandary. Whereas Bourne had to work out who he was and then whether or not he was actually a good man, Aaron’s situation is much less defined and immediately empathetic. Gilroy only offers hints of the sort of backstory that could lend it more substance: his attempts to sustain a similar kind of flashback structure to earlier instalments that reveal fragments of Aaron’s motivations prove perfunctory and actually more confusing than clarifying. Legacy is finally crippled by a poorly assembled and frustrating narrative, which Gilroy’s direction can’t leaven, as the film progresses at a relentlessly fidgety pace and yet, somehow, also takes forever to get going. It’s somehow telling that in spite of everything, Hollywood’s basic database of plot situations now thrusts Weisz into almost the same role she had in her first major American vehicle, Chain Reaction (1996), as the hot female scientist dragged about by the dashing hero. The actual stake of the plot is some annoyingly vague pseudoscience: Aaron needs Marta to find him a way to free himself from the control of the medication the Outcome project has him on to maintain the edge of his enhancement, and to make his edge permanent, so he doesn’t return to the dim bulb he once was. This notion, that Aaron was once so dumb his recruiting sergeant had to lie about his IQ so he could get him into the army and now he’s afraid of returning to that, is redolent of Charly (1968), but the potential numbing fear and alienation of this motivation is fumbled, and never gains immediacy.
Particularly awkward, and indeed straddling the borderlands of bad, are the clumsy, repetitious scenes of Norton providing exposition for the audience under the guise of clueing in Keach’s irritable overlord, which have the impression they might have been shot over a couple of days for some telemovie rather than a major franchise picture. Norton, looking glazed and testy, could well be wondering how he slid so far down the totem pole as to be landed with this functionary bad-guy role. The first half is also interspersed with fleeting appearances by some of the series’ previous supporting stars, like Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney, in attempts to maintain continuity, but instead only ever adding up to an infuriating patchwork quilt of false cues and poorly matched footage, engendering an air of cynical box-ticking. Gilroy gains a little juice from a dissonance between two levels of engagement with life and death, as in Michael Clayton, where murder for profit was just another service to be done well and efficiently. Here the same feeling is present as the drone pilots trying to kill Aaron in the Canadian wilds do their work with listless efficiency from secluded command centres, like uteruses of technology, whilst the man on the ground experiences it as a primal act of desperate survival. Gilroy, in fact, only really jars The Bourne Legacy to life in the blunter essentials of his action set-pieces, where he can at least reduce the driving forces to girl-in-danger essentials. But these are few and far between. The eerie and nail-biting moment in which Marta is nearly murdered by her colleague (Zeljko Ivanek) as he stalks around their laboratory, gunning down his co-workers with glacial calm, works particularly well, as does the old-fashioned of melodrama of Aaron bursting in on an attempt by Byer’s spooks to force Marta into a fake suicide, setting in motion a well-composed sequence as Aaron proves his smarts in outwitting the assassins in the obstacle course that is Marta’s country house, a white elephant fixer-upper that provides numbingly blank walls and clear spaces for a deftly athletic hero to run, jump, climb and hide.
That Renner and Weisz succeed in keeping the film focused is true, and indeed almost stating the obvious. They’re both serious, talented actors who can communicate intense emotions and also thoughtfulness with swift strokes, and the fact that neither of them are spring chickens, but rather weathered and refreshingly adult presences – although Weisz manages to get lovelier every year – is nicely out of step with Hollywood’s usual youth obsession. And yet the film seems to presume too much of them. Gilroy’s handling of his actors is also an issue, swinging from mere competence to the distractingly poor: several scenes, including a crucial one between the leads after Aaron’s first rescue of Marta, in which major nuggets of plot are breathlessly bandied, are excruciating in their obvious mixture of exposition and acting exercise-like, high-pressure banter. The inevitable conclusion is that Gilroy should have set himself the task of rebuilding the series’ aesthetic from the ground up, instead of half-heartedly imitating Greengrass’s model. So poor is Legacy’s dramatic balance that it neglects until the last half-hour to include another super-baddy, a la Karl Urban’s in The Bourne Supremacy (2004), to give Aaron more trouble than the usual befuddled urban cops to be smacked silly and have their wrists snapped. That said, Gilroy does manage to a certain extent to revive proceedings in the steadily mounting urgency of the final act, firstly as Aaron and Marta bluff their way into a Manila pharmacy plant to steal some of the live toxin that will make Aaron’s gifts permanent. As in the previous episodes, the hero’s capacity to pull rabbits from his hat in the form of solutions to rapidly crowding problems suddenly supplied with reflexive wit comes to the fore at last, before thunderous action becomes the method. Commencing in a prosaic foot chase through intricate folds of Manila’s less glamorous areas, the finale begins to assemble the familiar elements of the series action sequences, like flight across rooftops and dazzling high speed chases, with increasing cheeky verve. Not too little, but admittedly rather too late to really save the film, nonetheless the climax delivers what we all came to see.