When Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne swam away at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, how many of us really wanted this story to continue? It seemed like such a fitting departure point for the series, yet the assurance of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass’ return for a fourth film couldn’t help but excite. That is, until Greengrass left the project and Damon promptly followed, leaving it to series scribe Tony Gilroy to direct a new Bourne-like protagonist for The Bourne Legacy, a technically proficient but soulless and tiresome action thriller that too often skimps on the action.
Partly taking place concurrently with Ultimatum, Jason Bourne is never far away in both sight and mind here, as the CIA opts to dismantle all of their black ops programs in the wake of his destruction of Operation Blackbriar. Their latest outfit is named Operation Outcome, and while the rest of the roster are summarily assassinated, there is one, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who has survived, and aims to track down an ops scientist, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who can help expose the whole kit and caboodle.
The feeling coming away from The Bourne Legacy is that Tony Gilroy is a strong writer, but not so strong a director, at least as far as the action game goes. He can direct dialogued intensity extremely well – just look at Michael Clayton – but when it comes to visceral action, his scenes are slack and compartmentalised compared to the frenetic brilliance of Paul Greengrass’ divisive “shaky cam”. Here we never really sense the struggle when Aaron is running around; it all seems a bit too effortless, and the scenes lack energy.
Gilroy largely has himself to blame, though, because the film is both poorly paced and overlong, running in at 135-minutes, but spending close to an hour introducing Cross – who is entirely wordless for the opening 15 minutes – as he saunters around the wilderness, shacking up with a fellow operative, shooting down drones and punching wolves. His eventual arrival on home soil sees him meet up with Weisz’s Shearing, but it’s an immensely contrived set-up that is promptly batted away with an unfussed laziness by Gilroy. From here the action moves to the Philippines, while the film’s supporting stuffed shirts, namely Edward Norton’s Eric Byer, impatiently canvas surveillance footage looking for the pair. To Norton’s credit, he is totally committed to the role, but any film that relegates him to standing around, chewing dialogue in neon-lit situation rooms is doing something wrong.
Obviously, Gilroy is extremely keen to latch onto the Bourne namesake, when in fact, this might have been a more tolerable excursion had they distanced the story from Bourne’s somewhat, rather than incessantly referencing his actions, re-using clips from the last film, and shoehorning in three laughably short cameos from David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Joan Allen, who appear for less than a minute each. Though referencing Bourne is par the course, the cynical manner with which the narrative attaches itself makes it much harder to warm to Cross, who is himself underdeveloped and a relatively generic action lead. Furthermore, the far-fetched nature of the plot compared to the previous instalments – relating to super-soldiers created through a series of blue and green pills – does itself make this stand out from the trilogy like a sore thumb.
These gripes are unaided by the poor casting of Renner who, when working as an action hero, has thus far benefited hugely from having a strong set of performers around him. Thus, he lacks the charisma and outgoing personality needed to make Cross both a likable protagonist and a potent force to be reckoned with. It all in fact seems rather easy for Cross in the end – he even takes a bullet to the leg during a bike chase but shrugs it off – and we’re not emotionally connected to the action like we were even in The Bourne Identity, because Renner’s Cross is such a bland also-ran.
Fans of the previous films are likely to be disappointed in Legacy, which skimps considerably on the action – at least until its admittedly excellent final chase sequence – and struggles to find something fresh for its new protagonist to do. These pursuits and missions all feel achingly familiar, and too much of the film is spent talking and setting the scenario up in the first place. It is only Rachel Weisz who, in several scenes of distress, gets to emote much at all, and she damn near runs away with the whole film. On further positives, it is relatively good to look at, and Gilroy’s direction certainly has some flair, but the feeling is that if he’s making a film so in need of kinetic thrills, he would do best to stick to the script and let a more capable action helmer get their hands dirty.
A small, dirty footnote to the Bourne franchise, Rachel Weisz is the best thing in this overlong slog through Matt Damon’s table scraps.
The Bourne Legacy is out in cinemas this Friday.