Tony Gilroy directed Michael Clayton. Think about that, while you watch The Bourne Legacy, and ponder how it is that the writer-director of such a taut, effective film created something as skittish and incomplete as Bourne, which is about 45 percent prologue, and almost entirely unsatisfying.
Did we need more Bourne movies? Granted, there was something particularly appealing about the previous trilogy, some spark of chemistry between director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, who’s always struck me as an unlikely action hero. Everything he did seemed slightly improbable but entirely possible, and Greengrass set the bar for the rooftop chase sequence and remembered that a fight scene is nothing if you can’t see what’s going on. Little things, maybe, but they elevated the Bourne films, made them kinetic and spry. Brilliant? No. But let’s be honest about what we’re looking for here.
Gilroy’s Bourne has no sense of space or connection, and takes for granted that we remember far too many details from the previous films (which Gilroy co-wrote). It begins in Alaska, where Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) goes through some sort of training, dodging wolves and leaping ravines. Renner seemed the perfect actor with whom to revamp the series; he’s not pretty, but he’s attractive; he’s not bulked-up, but there’s a coiled, under-the-surface physicality to his presence. So why does it seem like he’s waiting for the movie’s star to show up?
While Cross mucks about in Alaska, Edward Norton, as Eric Byer, delivers a lot of terse, angry lines that are meant to remind us about the projects that created Bourne, Cross and, apparently, some other super-smart, super-strong folks around the globe who must now be eliminated. (Information in the wrong hands, everyone will be ruined, etc.) Byer and company fail to kill Cross, who’s none too pleased about their efforts. Meanwhile, project doctor Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is wound up in a tight ball of fear and raging fury; she’s the only survivor of a lab-shooting rampage. When the requisite government goons in black cars and ugly suits descend on her place, Cross shows up too.
This is a lot of plot just to get Cross and Shearing together, but The Bourne Legacy’s one stroke of relative genius was pairing up Renner and Weisz and then not requiring them to have immediate sexual tension; that builds, slightly, as they survive the destruction of her beautiful home, a tense flight to Manila, and an appropriate number of choppy, inelegant chases. But when the smoldering finally starts, the movie simply ends. It’s half a movie at best — the half packed with snippets of information, brief cameos from previous Bourne characters, and an overly busy setup with very little payoff. Before I saw the film, a friend claimed that not even Jeremy Renner wrestling a wolf could save it. Sadly, he was right.
THE BOURNE LEGACY: Directed by Tony Gilroy. Written by Tony and Dan Gilroy, inspired by the series by Robert Ludlum. Cinematography, Robert Elswit. Editor, John Gilroy. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton. Universal Pictures, 2012. PG-13. 135 minutes. Two stars.