Like a game of high-octane chess played upon a moving train, Universal’s “The Bourne Legacy” is just as interested in engaging the mind as it is the senses with its visceral action set-pieces. And while one might argue the action drama's allegiances lie much deeper with engaging the former, this taut, complex, and yes, at times dense, action thriller is still an auspicious beginning to what presumably will kick off another series in the grand mythology of these clandestine and top-secret CIA black ops programs.
With no Matt Damon to play Jason Bourne or Paul Greengrass to helm him (both actor and director left the franchise as the series’ story ostensibly concluded in the third picture), Universal’s considerable challenge to continue the story is taken on with appreciable risk by the ‘Bourne’ series writer and architect Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), who not only pens the fourth installment, but steps into the director's chair as well. And Gilroy fearlessly takes off in a single-minded direction that may not please all hardcore fans, but is tense and smart enough that it should at least draw in new ones.
The, ahem, legacy of the Jason Bourne saga obviously weighs heavily on this new film, and it's both a necessary evil and a tool fully employed by the filmmakers in this side-step brand-building endeavor. In fact, this film could have been titled “The Bourne Consequences,” as this fourth picture in the series is closely tied to the aftermath of the third film, “The Bourne Ultimatum.” As such, the opening narrative beats of “The Bourne Legacy” are constantly overlapping and intermingling with events from ‘Ultimatum’ (and, really, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to re-watch that film in anticipation; things can get a little fuzzy). At the end of that picture Jason Bourne (who is alluded to but never seen in ‘Legacy’) and CIA agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) exposed the secret Treadstone/Blackbriar government project that created him. This public fallout, and Bourne’s unexpected appearance that wreaks havoc in Manhattan, are the impetuses that trigger the film, sending the powers-that-be (played, with varying degrees of slippery nefariousness, by people like Stacy Keach and Ed Norton) into a damage-control frenzy. As trailers suggest, Jason Bourne is only the tip of the iceberg, and so rather than risk further exposure and inquiry that could spread like a virus and reveal a deeper, darker plan, a scheme is hatched to shut down all the projects and off-shoot programs that spawned specially-trained assassins. Instead of Treadstone and Blackbriar, the secret-ops programs in the original trilogy, the agents in the crosshairs this time around are part of a program called Outcome.
While the shit is hitting the bureaucratic fan in New York and Langley — folks like CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) already are having to appear before Congress to answer for these potential crimes — ‘Legacy’ cross-cuts its dense consequences-unraveling sequence with the introduction of an Outcome agent known as Aaron Cross. Played by Jeremy Renner, Cross is stationed in the frozen Alaskan Yukon (our first glimpse of him mirrors the beginning of the first "The Bourne Identity" with Cross floating in a frigid lake) enduring some brutal training exercises. While his mission is unclear (though it appears to be purposefully nebulous to the agent as well), Cross is shown to be just as resourceful, fearless, and agile as Bourne himself, with a ferocity that borders on the animalistic. Unlike Bourne, though, Cross seems dependent – he has to stop every few days and pop some color-coded pills that are hidden within his dog-tag (symbolism alert). Additionally, unlike the taciturn Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross appears to be of a different breed, a naturally curious and chatty fellow with a sense of humor, but whose disposition grows ice cold, robotic and lethal when potentially harmed or engaged in action.
And there’s no denying that while tense and tightly-coiled, “The Bourne Legacy” suffers from information overload in its first act, bordering on confusion (don’t be surprised when someone calls the opening half the “The Bourne Bureaucracy”). Toggling between the two scenarios is a risky move, especially since it's so early in the movie and the complexity of the dialogue, mixed with the opaqueness of Cross' mission, might be enough to turn some people off. But co-writer/director Tony Gilroy is confident, some would probably say dogged and relentless, in his vision of the storytelling, and it’s likely that unless you’re going to roll with the intricacies of ‘Legacy,’ you may get lost. If you were left scratching your head after his last film, the complicated and sometimes impenetrable corporate spy movie "Duplicity," you could also be at sea here momentarily. But Gilroy wisely condenses things and when “The Bourne Legacy” finally kicks into high gear at the end of the first act, the picture takes off like a shot.
Once Norton's Rick Byer, a morally bankrupt policy wonk who has a history with Cross, sends a drone plane to kill the agent (and another Bourne-type agent, played winningly by "Drive"co-star Oscar Isaac), the main thrust of the story launches. On the run from various shadowy government agencies looking to erase their mistake, Cross is also desperately seeking the medication he needs to function. This means confronting a scientist, played by Rachel Weisz, who administered the meds and gave the agents physicals and who is also subject to the same government conspiracy. In a terrific and chilling sequence, one of her lab technician partners goes on a killing rampage in the lab, murdering everyone associated with the program except her. As far as suspense set pieces go, it's white knuckle stuff, and once Weisz's doctor and Renner's secret agent finally meet, the action ratchets up considerably.
Instead of relying on Greengrass' shaky camera aesthetic, Gilroy and his tremendously talented cinematographer Robert Elswit instead rely on a more refined, slickly stylized look. There are a few moments of camera shutter and an unnecessarily jagged zoom or two, but for the most part this is a more streamlined affair. Often, the huge action beats will happen in the background, giving the set pieces a kind of offhand intensity, which syncs up well with the sequences of guys at computers scrambling around to figure out where this rogue agent is. In both cases Gilroy emphasizes the banality of international espionage while still giving the audience a spirited jolt.
Utilizing a series of international locations, as ‘Legacy’ pulls back the curtain on the series that came before it, the breadth and scope of its expansiveness begins to truly show (there's a wonderful montage in which various confederates of the project are assassinated that brings to mind the grandeur of Steven Soderbergh's recent "Contagion"). And while the universe expands, it all culminates in a breathless action set-piece. Gilroy shows surprising aptitude when it comes to staging these sequences, giving particular consideration to the geography they take place in, and while some of the action may feel familiar in tone to the ‘Bourne’ films (even if the aesthetic is somewhat less distinct) it at least proves that there is still a great amount of entertainment value in the saga of a doggedly pursued secret agent. While he doesn’t quite command the same quiet authority, Renner is a fine replacement for Damon, his face far more expressive and wounded than the stoic Bourne. And his chemistry with Weisz adds considerable depth to an already atypical female character in an action movie (she's a brain, but not a nerd); it’s palpable, anchoring the film emotionally in unexpected ways.
What may surprise and ultimately impress viewers is just how slavish 'Legacy' is to the 'Bourne' origins initially, and yet how the series spins itself off into another direction that is far less dependent on the franchise than you might have originally imagined (here's an salient example: while Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Scott Glenn reprise their roles from the original films, all of those actors are hardly in this new iteration). In that sense, this fourth picture embraces the familiar, while straddling the uncharted.
If the original ‘Bourne’ films were about coming to terms with who you are, then "The Bourne Legacy" (co-written by Tony Gilroy's brother Dan), is about getting past who you were to become something better. It's something relatable that any audience member can latch onto, even in the midst of dialogue that occasionally slips past the realm of scientific probability into the land of gobbledygook, and it's a good metaphor for the movie itself – moving beyond the previous films into something new and different. "The Bourne Legacy" wisely expands what came before it while pushing into new territories, both visually and on a thematic level. One can consider it the pilot episode of a new series, and in that sense, its conclusion may feel a little abrupt. Viscerally, “The Bourne Legacy” packs a punch. If you're looking for a traditional sequel though, you'll probably be disappointed, but if it's a whole new ride you're after, you've come to the right place. Bourne has indeed been reborn. [B+]