First, Paul Greengrass turned down the chance to helm a follow-up to 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy
" and 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum
" (director of 2002's "The Bourne Identity
," Doug Liman, had long since shifted to producer). Soon after, lead star Matt Damon announced that he would not be returning. Universal Pictures had three options going forward: to end the series on the relatively high note of "Ultimatum
," with Jason Bourne escaping to hopefully live a happier rest of his life; to recast the role, a 'la
James Bond; or to drop Bourne altogether and desperately form a new cockamamie story existing in the same universe so as to shamelessly piggyback on a lucrative franchise. Greed won out, and the resulting picture, "The Bourne Legacy," is a near-disaster, lacking any sense of the urgency of the previous installments and fundamentally problematic as a corkscrew narrative that trades in an amnesiac gradually learning about himself for a genetically altered war veteran who knows exactly who he is all along. Too bad he never lets the audience in on this key information.
In the Alaskan wilderness, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) toils away at a Special Operations training site, aware that he is running dangerously low on the chems (blue pills and green pills) that give him enhanced physical and mental abilities. Escaping from the grid, he arrives in Maryland soon after a mass shooting has mysteriously occurred at the high-security lab where he received his check-ups. Shaken and stirred, biochemist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) narrowly survived, but no one will listen to her suspicions that the shootera colleague of hersmay have gone berserk after getting exposed to the live viruses they work with. With shady figures sent by USAF official Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to silence Marta, she is saved by Aaron and the two go on the run, headed to the company's meds lab in Manila, Philippines, to retrieve the pills Aaron needs. Oh, yeah, and for no detectable reason, this all appears to be going on at the same time as the events of "The Bourne Supremacy
" and "The Bourne Ultimatum
," with Matt Damon's face occasionally showing up on news screens. Connecting the two stories beyond the barest of threads (Bourne was the prototype of Aaron's updated model of field agent) isn't even an afterthought, since no cohesive thoughts seem to have been put into the premise at all.
Having all but nothing to do with the novels by Robert Ludlum, "The Bourne Legacy" was written and directed by Tony Gilroy (2009's "Duplicity
"), co-written by Dan Gilroy (2011's "Real Steel
"), and it's a steaming clunker. Whereas the previous "Bourne" films never seemed to stop moving and evolving, infused with a jittery momentum even in scenes where people were doing no more than typing on computers, this one is curiously meandering and bereft of energy, deadly dull and inert for a good forty minutes or so before anything of note occurs. When it does, depicting a horrifying lab massacre that inadvertently recalls similar tragic current events in Colorado and Wisconsin, it is but a temporary jolt to one's adrenaline. What follows is back to familiar basics, albeit covered by a dreary sheen, culminating in a single action set-piece (a motorcycle chase that doesn't come close to the auto pursuits in the other three movies) and then arbitrarily ending with virtually nothing accomplished and no point to be gleamed from any of it.
Since Tony Gilroy is credited as both director and scribe, he is ultimately the one that must be blamed for the movie's sizable failings. Able to climb walls like Spider-Man, Aaron's special abilities threaten to alienate viewers who enjoyed the sympathetic normalcy of Jason Bourne and the general plausibility of the complex cat-and-mouse games he was embroiled in. More a hindrance than that, however, is in the deviation from the key detail of Jason's amnesia. He didn't know who he was, and it was a treat for audiences to discover along with the hero all of the details about him and his past. Here, Aaron has no such memory loss, yet Gilroy foolishly constructs the film to keep theatergoers in the dark for an inordinate amount of time about the particulars of who this new protagonist is. Without giving him the chance to ingratiate himself, Aaron is rendered an uninteresting cipher.
Jeremy Renner (2012's "The Avengers
") can be a commanding and charismatic performer, but his Aaron Cross suffers from no one being sure what to do with him. He spends the first act hiking around Alaska by himself, and then abruptly barges in to save Dr. Marta Shearing from dangerous government agents by way of her closet, of all places. He is unaware that he is being pursued for a long time after that, his mind narrowed on the sole goal of getting to the Philippines to procure his chems. Deceptively complicated for the reason that it's actually too simplistic to believe, the film backs itself into a corner, tosses in a climactic chase out of begrudging obligation, and abruptly cues up Moby's "Extreme Ways" (the series' end-credits calling card). As Dr. Marta Shearing, Rachel Weisz (2011's "Dream House
") exhibits more of a personality than Aaron, sliding into the standard part of a love interest. Why does she fall for Aaron? Because he's the only guy there, and it's expected. Stop asking questions. Finally, Edward Norton (2012's "Moonrise Kingdom
") is wasted even by the standards of a government heavy. Joan Allen (who appears in a 45-second cameo) is missed.
A spin-off that no one asked for ("Matt Damon or bust!" fans should have proclaimed), "The Bourne Legacy" is the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine
" or "Exorcist II: The Heretic" of the "Bourne" series, a low-rent, low-voltage rehash with each new idea offered up being a bad one. Defying the reasons why so many viewers took to the series to begin with, this one is destined to please few while taking a lot longer to get there. Writer-director Tony Gilroy needn't be bothered by the action and espionage genres, instead turning to a lot of talk to push forward his flimsy plot. No matter how hard they might try, Universal Pictures should have realized that without Bourne, there is nowhere of substance for further films to go. Had they respected him, they would have left his good name out of it.