Not Another 'Bourne' Pun
The first trailer for a new movie has a grave and very significant responsibility, quite simply because – for people who are anything like me – it can be the main factor in deciding whether or not a film ends up on my 'to see' list. By this standard, the first trailer – or teaser – for Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy did a supremely good job, managing to be atmospheric and memorable while playing on the audience's memories of and fondness for the original three films. However, expectations in our house have seldom crashed quite so far or so fast as they did when the second trailer came out – because all that seemed to promise was a far-fetched and ferociously convoluted action runaround.
(Interesting to contrast the situation regarding Bourne Legacy with that of Dredd, another film I'm looking forward to seeing: despite a very positive buzz around this film coming from people who've seen previews, I can't shake the impression I got from the trailer, which is that this is just going to be a grimy CGI-heavy SF twin of The Raid.)
Hey ho. I wonder what it says that, upon buying my ticket for this film, I found myself asking for one to see The Bourne Thingummy? Probably nothing very cheerful about me or it. The main thing about this film is kind of tipped off by the title, from which you might surmise that Bourne himself is no longer with us. You would be absolutely spot on in this, as Matt Damon has declined to return, along with director of the last two installments Paul Greengrass.
And so instead we have a narrative dealing with the consequences of events in the previous film, with the action running in parallel for some of the time (I was wary of this trick until I recalled they did something vaguely similar with the ending of Bourne Supremacy turning up again halfway through Bourne Ultimatum). The details will probably be utterly unintelligible and also quite dull to anyone not with a detailed recall of the previous trilogy. Basically, Bourne's whistle-blowing activities against his former masters cause panic amongst elements of the defense establishment well above the CIA, resulting in ruthless puppetmaster Eric Byer (Ed Norton) ordering all associated programmes which could be linked back to them permanently shut down and all details obliterated.
This involves the cold-blooded slaughter of numerous American operatives throughout the world, and high on Byer's target list is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent whose physical and mental abilities have been boosted through genetic modification (provided he keeps taking his agency-supplied medication). As luck would have it, Cross survives the initial attempt on his life, but in order to maintain his supply of drugs he is forced to go in search of one of the doctors who has handled his case, Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). However, her own connection to the project means she is on the government's death list too...
Even when Greengrass and Damon were still on board, I was a bit dismayed to learn that a fourth Bourne movie was in the works – simply because I couldn't see how they could keep up the standard they had established for themselves, and also because Ultimatum concluded with such a strong sense of finality and closure. Legacy works hard to make the viewer believe that this is a valid continuation of the same story – it opens with a man's body floating in water (a repeated image in the original films), Joan Allen, David Strathairn and others have tiny cameos, and 'Extreme Ways' plays over the closing credits – but nevertheless the sense that this is a film cobbled together simply because the Damon films made $945,000,000 is virtually inescapable.
Like Supremacy and Ultimatum, Legacy concludes with a barnstorming vehicular pursuit with many spectacular stunts. And when it came on, I thought, 'Oh, this is a bit like the climaxes of the last two. Is this the climax of the story already? Gosh.' Frankly, I was a bit surprised the story was reaching a climax because so far as I could tell the story hadn't actually started yet.
Or, to put it another way, there's an awful lot of plot in The Bourne Legacy – huge amounts of exposition have to be laid in introducing the new characters and their relationships, then Cross and Marta have to be guided into meeting each other and then go on the run, etc, etc – but very little story. I think The Bourne Identity is a fun thriller, but what makes the Paul Greengrass films so exceptional is how far they manage to blend being terrific action movies with other things – Supremacy has a remarkable emotional story at its centre, while Ultimatum is an astonishingly angry and political film. And they've both got very smart and engrossing stories, of course.
In this one we've got two people being chased by shadowy government forces and some business about genetic viruses, and not much more. There's a lot of stuff about the use of drugs to condition and modify agents, but it just feels like it's here as a hook to hang the plot on, not something the director really cares about. There's some material suggesting Cross is effectively addicted to his medication, but this doesn't really go anywhere – except, perhaps, to some plot developments which are weirdly reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon.
I should say that both Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz are very good in sadly undemanding parts – Renner is cooler, harder, and less obviously earnest than Damon, while Weisz... I have to confess I was just thinking 'Wow, she's so beautiful... how old must she be?!?' Even here, though, the film seems to be playing it very safe: gorgeous boffin in peril is pretty much Rachel Weisz's stock-in-trade, while Jeremy Renner – charismatic though he be – seems to do nothing else but play sharpshooting military specialists and/or spies. And, apart from Renner's considerable charms, we're given scant reason to engage with him as a hero. He's a man who's chosen to go into a vicious, brutal world, and – prior to his bosses deciding to have him killed – he appears to have been pretty sanguine about this. There's a tiny fig-leaf of a scene suggesting he's had some sort of moral qualms in the past, but that's all. He's not trying to find himself, or right a wrong, or avenge a death: he's just trying to stay alive and intact, nothing more.
Come the end of The Bourne Legacy, despite some decently put-together action and acceptable work from the leads, I was still suffused with an overwhelming feeling which I could articulate only as 'So what?' It doesn't come close to the quality of any of the previous films and tells me nothing about this world or these characters that I actually cared to learn. Further outings promise only to actively slime the memory of one of the best action franchises ever made: for pity's sake, knock it on the head now.