12:08 pm Aug. 10, 2012
I thought Tony Gilroy might be able to pull off a great post-Matt Damon sequel to the Bourne Identity trilogy.
He co-plotted they last three Bourne films, and is the talented writer/director of both Michael Clayton and Duplicity.
It's not the acting: Jeremy Renner is terrific, as usual. It also doesn't matter that it's the first movie in the franchise not based on one of Ludlum's original trilogy of books: Legacy actually captures the blocky pacing and ridiculously macho tone of Ludlum's series better than the last three films, all of which were only loosely based on their source novels anyway.
The problem with this Bourne is its similarity to the others: There's just not enough here to distinguish Damon's Jason Bourne from Renner's Aaron Cross.
We first see Aaron in The Bourne Legacy floating face-down in ice water. This shot mirrors a scene in The Bourne Identity in which Bourne's is discovered unconscious in the Mediterranean Sea.
Aaron is bobbing around in Alaskan ice water by choice: He's completing an exercise, unlike Bourne, who was found unconscious and with no memories. Aaron is thus introduced to us as a spy that at least has some level of control over his actions.
And then he basically becomes Jason Bourne.
See, the CIA has lost control of Bourne, a black-ops killer with enhanced physical abilities, and don't want to repeat their recent mistakes. So they need to control Cross at all costs. Treadstone and Blackbriar, two different CIA departments run by vicious middle-men, have already killed all of Aaron's fellow super-spies and all but one of the scientists who helped to give spies like Aaron superhuman skills.
Now, Aaron and Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) have to stay alive long enough to get him more of the experimental pills that help his brain and his body to work at an accelerated rate. He's basically an athletic super-junky in need of a fix.
Throughout the film, Aaron is on edge: he's running out of wonder-pills and he needs more, even though he doesn't really need more. Aaron is jumpy and imbalanced, notwithstanding his knack for improvising his and Marta's escape plans.
Aaron Cross, like Jason Bourne before him, realizes just how monstrous he is as he runs away from his bosses. He's Frankenstein's monster, except Frankenstein in this case is a group of hyper-compartmentalized government bureaucrats. A connection is almost but not quite made between the self-absolving, information-devouring protocols that interchangeable, stuffy G-men (Ed Norton and an underutilized Stacy Keach) use and the free-form survivalist tactics that Aaron uses. The bad guys hide behind dogmatic policies that allow them to kill people with impunity. But Aaron has his own rules, which make him really good at killing people, lying to strangers and fleeing from capture.
The movie's morals are nicely complicated, and Aaron Cross is presented to the audience as an antihero. He seems moral when he checks Marta's pupils to see if she's lying or generously trains her to pick a false identity that's easy to remember. But when he executes an elaborate gymnastic move to sneak up on someone and shoot him in the face, that violence is rendered unromantic and unspectacular. You can hear the dead victim falling down a flight of stairs for a couple of seconds after he's shot.
The most viscerally violent action scene in the film is one in which Aaron swiftly and brutally beats up a group of schlubby-looking security guards. These guys are not hit men. They are not paid assassins. They're just guys who are doing their jobs and following orders.
In fact, Gilroy goes out of his way to show the sordidness, to the point where it looks like a rethinking of the Bourne franchise that was ultimately constrained by his need to keep it within the boundaries of the formula he used in the last three films.
By the time the movie ends, Aaron has defeated the people who trained him and violently dispatched the bad guy, who is even more heartless than he is. Much of the complexity is dispensed with by that point. It's Bourne again.