Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE BOURNE LEGACY Is Solid But Unspectacular Summer Action


- The Bourne franchise has always been notable for its genre-redefining aesthetics. When I think of what made the original Bourne flicks work so well, I think about the gritty, feet-on-the ground tone, the you-are-there cinematic style (embodied by Paul Greengrass' trademark shakycam), and the everyman-as-super-spy dynamic. What the first three Bourne movies never truly delivered though was a great mythology that you could sink your teeth into - they were content to keep things relatively mysterious for us, the audience - just as they were for Jason Bourne. So any new Bourne movie that seeks to restart the franchise is going to be inherently challenged - how to expand and build upon a mythology that was already pretty murky to begin with? The answer is: don't worry about it. Instead, load up the new, Bourne-less Bourne film with top-shelf actors and bouts of badass action, give some quick taglines about Jason Bourne being "only the beginning," and hope that that's enough. Is it? While it's not enough for this new Bourne to achieve greatness, it is more than suitable to make it into a very watchable - and occasionally kickass - action flick.

The star of this one is the great Jeremy Renner as a new character (but with a similarly movie title-ready name), Aaron Cross. Cross was a part of the same top-secret government program that yielded Jason Bourne - a genetically-modified, chemically-enhanced super-soldier who's essentially been bred to be a war machine. The film takes place concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, and so even as Uncle Sam scours the globe for Bourne, the pressure is on to hide all other traces of the program and eliminate all of the other operatives in the field - lest they, too, should go rogue and/or become exposed. And so, while on a training mission in a remote, frozen tundra, Cross is targeted by his own bosses. Cross narrowly escapes (in a pretty awesome sequence ... let's just say that WOLVES are involved), but finds himself on the run and without his "chems" - the multicolored substances that maintain his mental and physical faculties. Cross goes off in search of Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weiss), who used to oversee his government-sponsored chem injections. Cross - in frantic, Flowers For Algernon mode - is desperate not to lose his abilities - and Shearing is the only one who may be able to help him - and who he thinks he can trust. Meanwhile, a cabal of government operatives - led by an amped-up, uber-determined Edward Norton - are hot on the trail of Cross, aka the one (other than Bourne) who got away.

First off, let me say that Jeremy Renner is a great actor and a believable badass, and I actually like him in this role as much, if not more so, than Matt Damon. To me, the discrepancy between Damon's boyishness and Bourne's badassery always seemed to demand a backstory that never materialized, in order to rationalize the contrast. But Renner's face tells you what you need to know - the guy is an angry, haunted, tormented, pitbull ... that you don't want to mess with. He does a great job of carrying the film, but he's also got a phenomenal supporting cast to play off of. Rachel Weiss, for example, is an actress who you wish could be cast in every movie part that calls for a classic beauty who's also believably smart and intellectual. She nails the part of Dr. Shearing, and does a great job of conveying the kind of fear and in-over-her-head anxiety that a scientist would have after getting caught in the crossfire of a government-sponsored hit-squad. Plus, she has a very natural chemistry with Renner that is evident beyond what's necessarilly in the script. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is top-notch. One huge scene-stealer is Zeljko Ivanek, as a scientist coworker of Weiss'. He is front and center in the movie's most memorable, chilling scene - and Ivanek's surprising, gripping turn is what makes the scene as haunting as it is. You've also got the great Stacy Keach doing what he does best ... being the grizzled, no-nonsense badass. Plus, Edward Norton gives the movie a lot of electricity, with his energetic, dynamic performance. Bourne series regulars like David Straitharn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen all make cameos as well, firmly planting this one in the middle of the Bourne universe.

Director Tony Gilroy, who wrote all the previous Bourne films, and who's directed some showstoppers (Michael Clayton, for one), takes the reigns here. He foregoes the uber-slick shaky-cam of Greengrass, and instead goes back to an aesthetic more in line with the original film. The movie still feels sleek and gritty, but also a little more old-school than some of the other films. There are some nice action scenes (and the entire final act is essentially one long chase scene) - but, there's nothing quite as take-your-breath-away awesome as some of Greengrass' best sequences from the last two films (Bourne dispatching badguys with a magazine and a towel, anyone?).

Honestly, the biggest issue here is the plotting. The movie gets off to a compelling start, with Cross in a desolate, frozen wasteland with shades of The Grey from earlier this year. But as we meet Norton and his government cohorts, the movie bombards us with noise and jargon that feels like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. We're teased with backstory - but again, there's not much to latch on to. Why exactly did the government go to such lengths to create these supersoldiers, and why is the fear of exposure so great that they'd so abruptly end the program by killing off all of the soldiers? We get lots of bits and pieces, but it's mostly just filler. The same goes for the science behind the experiments. And most importantly, the same goes for Cross and his particular motivations. Who was he before the experiments - how much does he know / remember? What would happen, exactly, if Cross didn't take his "chems?" The consequences are never truly established to the point where we feel a real sense of urgency around his mission. A lot of compelling questions are raised here, but the movie doesn't seem all that interested in answering most of them. That sort of ambiguity was okay in the original three films, which told more specific, more tightly reigned-in stories. But here, the purpose of the movie is, in many respects, to pull back the curtain on the world of Bourne - to expand the universe. And The Bourne Legacy is only mildly successful in that regard.

Now, would there be some thrill out of getting a future sequel where Bourne and Cross team up to take down their common foe? Sure. And The Bourne Legacy certainly leaves that option open as a possibility. But that also means that Aaron Cross' journey in this movie doesn't feel wholly satisfying. For one, we never get deep enough into his character - or into the shady government program that spawned him - to really understand what's at stake here. For another, the overall arc of the film feels like it's about establishing Cross as a badass - which it does - but it's all foundation-building. Without knowing what, if anything, it's building towards ... it's hard to get all that excited. And some of that ambivalence stems from my overall feelings towards the franchise. It always feels to me like the plots of these films get drowned out by the action, aesthetics, and everpresent angst of the main characters. But the lead - the fact that THESE ARE GENETICALLY-ENGINEERED SUPER-SOLDIERS CREATED IN SECRET BY THE GOVERNMENT FOR SOME UNKNOWN AGENDA - gets repeatedly buried. A lot of folks who just come for some cool action won't care, and hey, it's not like that prevents these films from being damn good action movies. But it does, I think, prevent them from being truly *great* films. Again, just not enough to sink your teeth into. And it's not like these are Hong Kong-style action movies that are all *about* the action, either. There's more than enough downtime between action scenes, more than enough technobabble and behind-the-scenes espionage stuff to make you yearn for better plot and better backstory to go along with it.

Where that leaves us is here: The Bourne Legacy is uber-competently made, superbly-acted and cast. It's a rock-solid action-thriller and well worth a watch. But this, also, is franchise filmmaking in search of a purpose for existing.

My Grade: B

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