Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy falls flat because it doesn’t give Jeremy Renner a character to work with. The film is merely built around an idea — that the story of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne was surrounded by a bunch of parallel stories of similarly trained special agents — and therefore fails to sustain the human interest of its predecessors. It’s not a boring idea, necessarily, but it becomes one when we realize that there aren’t any layers to Renner’s Aaron Cross. You could argue that such an effect is by design, amplifying the haunting anonymity of the world depicted, but that doesn’t cover up the fact that this Bourne simply doesn’t engage like the others.
We first meet Aaron, cold and alone, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. A member of Operation Outcome — also known as, Basically The Same Program Jason Bourne Was Involved With — Aaron is in Alaska maintaining his physique and cultivating his control over his surroundings. We see him elude hungry wolves, swim fearlessly through icy waters, and climb his way through the Alaskan mountains with nearly super-human strength. When he stumbles upon another Outcome puppet (Oscar Isaac) hidden away in a cabin, we’re told that Aaron’s hiking skills are so impressive that they’ve set a new record. (Yes, these guys gossip about statistics when they’re not killing people — and, frankly, I probably would, too.)
The timeline of Legacy exists alongside that of The Bourne Ultimatum, the best and most recent film in this series, and the second one directed with kinetic mastery by Paul Greengrass. (The first film, 2002′s The Bourne Identity, was made by Doug Liman, who’s no slouch himself.) The CIA is scrambling to remove all traces of their assassin programs, Treadstone, Blackbriar, and Outcome being the prize ponies. This time represented principally by Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton, restricted, like Renner, by a blank-slate bore of a role), the agency is seen going about their mission without remorse, sending both missiles and lethal capsules across the world to eliminate all remaining “assets.”
Tony Gilroy had a major hand in scripting each of the previous Bourne films, and his familiarity with this realm of governmental espionage shines through here. But his other writings jobs were tighter, more driven by relentless activity. This one — aside from chase-sequence climax that, like the film as a whole, is efficiently done but overlong — feels different, much less confident in its overall trajectory, and honestly quite boring once the scientific jargon, spoken with discernible effort by the lovely Rachel Weisz, loses its zing.
In writing the Damon films, Gilroy and his partners understood that the wordiness of this universe could only get them so far. Impressively, however, they managed to consistently craft conversations that sizzled with intensity, every line spoken by Brian Cox or Chris Cooper or Joan Allen creating a flare of wit and gravity. But that’s because those movies found the right rhythm between office conflict and car-chase mayhem. They only paused for chatter when they knew the viewer needed to gasp for air.
But Legacy is filled with talk from top to bottom, and sooner or later, everything that’s said converges into one monotonous blur. And when we look at Aaron Cross, we don’t recognize a soul underneath that steely skin like we did with Jason Bourne. It’s not that Renner isn’t capable — he’s been too good in too many things for that to be the case. It’s that his character is treading water from moment one, battling to achieve some kind of personality or, ahem, identity. (We know he’s on the hunt for pills — anything else?)
This is Gilroy’s third film as a director, after Michael Clayton and Duplicity, and it’s a disappointingly bland one to place in conversation with those two works. It doesn’t tell us anything new about his talents or interests, nor does it even reveal any potential limitations of his arsenal. (It would be patently absurd to expect him to live up to the set-piece standard set by Greengrass in Ultimatum as well as the preceding The Bourne Supremacy.) Legacy does, however, tell us something concrete about cinematographer Robert Elswit — that he’s bound to have a sizeable headache when he sees Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, knowing that this film kept him from shooting that one.
For spoiler-related discussion of The Bourne Legacy, visit the Forums. All other comments can be left below.