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Friday, August 10, 2012

The Bourne Legacy takes the texture and fun out of a great spy franchise

Posted by on Fri, Aug 10, 2012 at 12:20 PM

THE BOURNE LEGACY
** stars
Opens Friday

When The Bourne Identity hit theaters in 2002, it jostled loose in me old fanboy quirks I hadn't experienced since Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It's a little embarrassing, but I would sometimes pretend to be an amnesiac superspy in airports and shopping malls—scanning the crowds, analyzing my options. I can tell you that the guy at the Cinnabon counter is 190 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I can tell you that the best place to look for a bathroom is at Sears, and at this hour of the morning I can run flat out for 120 meters before my back locks up.....

Opening today, The Bourne Legacy is the fourth entry in the critically and commercially successful spy series. Legacy works as both a sequel and reboot, but it's not as clever, it's not as thrilling and it's not as fun.

Matt Damon has been replaced by Jeremy Renner in the lead role, and the story makes a lateral jump from Jason Bourne to fellow black-ops hard guy Aaron Cross, who has his own set of problems.

The film starts out in an interesting place. After all the cramped urban violence of the first three films, we begin with sweeping aerial vistas of rugged Alaskan mountains. Alone in the wilderness on a training mission, Cross dives into icy rivers and fends off ravenous wolves as the film establishes its own visual tone.

Via some clever cross-cutting techniques with scenes from the third film, we learn that Cross is a trained assassin with the same covert outfit that produced Jason Bourne, and that events are taking place in parallel with events from the previous movie. Bourne's actions have caused a ripple effect, and now the government's nefarious handlers intend to systematically kill off all of their own assassins.

The Bourne Legacy is essentially about Cross' efforts to avoid that fate. Complicating matters, Cross' handlers have hooked him on rationed drugs which heighten his physical and cognitive abilities. Rachel Weisz enters the story as CIA-employed medical doctor—also targeted for elimination—who can help Cross kick. Together, they race around the globe, just a half-step ahead of new villain Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton), running the show from the usual high-tech nerve center of satellite feeds and nervous underlings.

Tony Gilroy, who wrote most of the first three films, takes over as director in Legacy and he clearly has a strong grasp on the Bourne template and mythology. Unfortunately, he lacks the narrative boldness and visual precision of previous helmers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass.

Too many scenes drag, and the showcase action sequences are surprisingly familiar. We've already seen these rooftop pursuits and motorcycle chases. It's genuinely puzzling that Gilroy would repeat himself like this. The story gets muddy, too. Greengrass, in particular, was a genius at doling out precise amounts of visual information to move the story forward. (You can bet, watching a Greengrass film, that your eye is going exactly where he wants it to go.) Legacy is more clumsy, and the stakes just don't seem as high as they should be.

The performances are great, though. Renner is tough and charismatic, and finds an interesting direction for the role. Damon portrayed Bourne as still and haunted, calmly calculating a thousand angles. Renner plays Cross as more of a spontaneous and physical specimen. He doesn't think as much as he reacts. Weisz provides the film's high emotions. and anchors the movie's most harrowing scenes.

As with the previous films, the violence in Legacy is never just played for kicks. But the body count is higher, and the sanctioned killings treated much more casually. The moral shadings and policy debates of the first three movies are gone. This time around, the government as an entity is a stone-cold killer, and Norton as our villain is blander because of it.

The Bourne Legacy also doesn't have the sly sense of humor that occasionally popped up in the original trilogy. In the first film, director Liman had several quiet jokes that undercut all the bloodletting. Remember when Maria ignored Jason's detailed spycraft instructions and instead got the job done by flirting with the desk clerk? Even with Greengrass' harder take in the second and third films, there was always a wink-and-nod thrill in watching our hero outsmart the bad guys with lethal MacGyver thinking.

Legacy is grimmer, harder fare—less textured and less interesting.

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The fourth entry in the critically and commercially successful spy series is both sequel and reboot, but it's not as clever, not as thrilling and not as fun.

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