“There was never just one,” the posters for The Bourne Legacy tease. They refer to the members of the CIA’s hush-hush Treadstone program, of which forgetful super-spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), was, well, born from. We got three great films with him as the lead, and maybe that’s more than we deserved, because now we are being punished with a fourth that instead stars Jeremy Renner as the Bourne-like (and Bourne-lite) Aaron Cross. I’m a big fan of Renner, and I wish him all the success in the world. Nonetheless, The Bourne Legacy feels like the woozy comedown from a dizzying, delirious adventure. If Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum were the cheeky entrée, mouth-watering main, and delectable dessert, respectively, watching this fourquel feels like finally receiving the bill.
Previous directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass are out, and the original trilogy’s “narrative architect” Tony Gilroy has been handed the wheel. The “narrative architect” classification comes from the promotional materials, in place of the far less sexy yet more accurate title of “screenwriter.” Perhaps they didn’t want to state that explicitly, considering Damon accused his drafts of being unreadable. Gilroy has helmed two fine features prior to Legacy, however: Michael Clayton and Duplicity; the former is the stone-faced sibling of Bourne, while Duplicity is the giddy, silly cousin. Sadly, while trying to ape both the flash of Liman and the immersive freneticism of Greengrass here, he comes up short.
In the ongoing saga’s timeline, this one takes place between parts two and three, and begins with Aaron Cross on a solo survival mission in Alaska. A rendezvous with another operative (Oscar Isaac) is cut short by an army attack; now that Bourne’s AWOL and intent on exposing the CIA’s controversial project, one of its founders, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), has orchestrated a mass wipe-out of their ultra-intelligent, profoundly powerful, extremely resilient assassins. Cross, obviously, survives, and kidnaps kindly Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) so that she might restore his supply of green and blue pills (Macguffins rx), which help him to run at full capacity. There’s a fight sequence or two, a car chase, and an admittedly chilling shootout involving Željko Ivanek, wedged in between all the dense, impenetrable, shadowy back-room dealings, and Renner and Weisz’s exasperatingly drawn-out escape from authorities. Sometimes the movie is convincing as a fun, competent, thrilling blockbuster, with thoughtful performances from the main trio. Sometimes.
The shadow of Damon’s Bourne looms large, and Legacy goes to great lengths to refer to him constantly and proudly display his picture (that ten-year-old passport photo might have the second most screen-time after Renner himself). I can’t think of another franchise entry that works this hard to justify its own existence. The irony, of course, is that a decent actioner is justified by decent action, and The Bourne Legacy just does not deliver. You could argue that it’s merely a bridge between the previous instalment and the inevitable sequel in which Damon’s Bourne would ideally return. This bridge feels rickety and incomplete.
The Bourne Legacy arrives in Australian cinemas August 16, 2012.