The Bourne Legacy puts Jeremy Renner in the driver's seat of a moodier, more sober offshoot 

Bourne Reborn

Bourne Reborn

By the previous standards of the Bourne franchise — which we all thought had concluded with 2007's The Bourne UltimatumThe Bourne Legacy is a decidedly B-Team affair. Gone are star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, replaced by new lead Jeremy Renner and director Tony Gilroy (who wrote the earlier films and has since become a successful director himself, with the somewhat overrated Michael Clayton and the somewhat underrated Duplicity). But it's less a franchise extension or "reboot" (ugh) than an alternate take on the successful series, and in some aspects, like its hero, it stands better alone.

Indeed, the new film is positioned as a B-storyline to Ultimatum's third act, much of it unfolding simultaneously with (the unseen) Jason Bourne's undoing of the secret program that created him. Now, with government honchos worried that their under-the-radar intelligence operation will be uncovered, the whole thing starts to be shut down, and its scientists and agents around the world (some in the midst of providing valuable intelligence to the U.S.) are killed with ruthless efficiency.

Attempting to escape the carnage are Aaron Cross (Renner), a super-spy recently in from the wilderness, and Dr. Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist whom Cross befriends in an attempt to procure some mind-altering drugs. Essentially, the government's been giving him a blue pill to keep his senses sharp, he's run out, and he needs more; otherwise he's going to shut down and become ... well, something, we're not sure what exactly.

So our hero is an uncharismatic addict about whom we know nothing, and he doesn't even look like Matt Damon to boot. And yet it's hard not to root for Renner. For all his ass-kicking abilities, there's a certain ordinary-guy intensity to his alt-Bourne, and he even has decent chemistry with Weisz.

But by asking to be placed in the context of the earlier Bourne films, Legacy does itself no favors. Tonally, it works a lot better on its own. More sober and deliberate than its predecessors, it's less about heroism and action and more about process, which appears to be Gilroy's main obsession as a director. Much as he did with Michael Clayton, here he focuses on the way fear percolates throughout a system, and he displays genuine dexterity with multiple story threads. The evil is more diffuse; people may be getting killed, but the pencil pushers in government offices seem detached from what's going on, even when they're watching footage of a drone strike. We're watching a system self-destruct, and our hero is just trying to get out of the way before it takes him with it.

That's a hell of an idea to hang an action franchise on, and it's hard to tell if The Bourne Legacy is this series' death rattle or a successful reinvention. I'm hoping for the latter. In its methodical way, this unneeded, unwanted sequel is more riveting than it has any right to be.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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