The Bourne Legacy Dir. Tony Gilroy

[Universal Pictures; 2012]

Styles: action
Others: The Bourne Ultimatum, Michael Clayton, Duplicity

Nothing much is going on in The Bourne Legacy, but it’s pleasantly distracting, which means it hits its target since the Bourne series has always been aces at dressing up action spy films as something more stoic and serious than what they really are. Legacy, the fourth Bourne, shifts the gears of the series slightly, with a new director and a new star playing a new character. But whatever its slight changes in faces or camera style, it registers just fine as a simple continuation of this innocuously self-serious franchise.

The last three Bourne films, in which Matt Damon played an amnesiac super soldier who never seemed to have much trouble turning the tables on the government that was trying to kill him, famously used non-stop shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing to keep deceptively simple plots moving at top speed. This movie is just as fast, but its camerawork has nothing on the queasiness induced by the earlier installments, which makes sense, because its plot isn’t even deceptively simple, but rather kind of silly. Two soldiers bond with each other while alone in a log cabin. One of them races across the planet for a drug fix. Then a bunch of shady government drone types sit in front of computers yelling into phones and debating the reliability of satellite imagery. Then a dirt bike chase. And along the way, some wolves. That I had to snap myself out of an action transfixion to realize that nothing I was looking at carried any weight, morally or plot-wise, is the best sign that the people who made Legacy knew what they were doing.

Legacy is a bit funnier than the earlier Bourne movies, which, when combined with its boring story makes a tough sell as a film ostensibly about real-world spy stuff. Still, it works, thanks to three noticeable details. Its stars — Jeremy Renner, as the new super soldier, Rachel Weisz, as his love interest, and Edward Norton, as the head bad guy — all express intense emotional turmoil even when an examination of the plot reveals that none should be present. A well-done score pounds constantly but unobtrusively (unlike some other big-budget summer movies). Then there’s the diversion tactic of delivering ridiculous and portentous lines so quickly you don’t have time to care about their lack of sense (how many movies can make a quick cutaway to a nerd on the phone ordering somebody to “Check the international flights first!” seem exciting? Many have tried; this one succeeds.)

There are also some geeky things to point out, mostly for the benefit of people who tend to find themselves excited by the prospect of seeing a super agent efficiently kick a lot of ass in a very short span of time (I’m one of these people):

1) In place of any kind of deepening of the Bourne movies’ ubiquitous shadowy government organizations that specialize in creating super soldiers (like the previous movies’ Jason Bourne and, here, Renner’s Aaron Cross), we get a whole lot of bellicose, high security-clearance-sounding dialogue. Most of this is simply meant to impress us into thinking that whatever vague missions these agents are sent on must involve some pretty badass shit. Usually when movies feel the need to have characters incessantly remind the audience of how badass a cop/agent/villain is, it’s because the film is trying to make up for the fact that the cop/agent/villain isn’t all that badass in the first place. But in fact, some of the things we get to see Aaron Cross do are nicely badass: he battles wolves with his bare hands, launches himself down the sides of buildings and kicks a bunch of ass the second he lands, rides a dirt bike up a crowded staircase and through heavy traffic, uses a fire extinguisher to shoot a guy in the face with a nail, convincingly impersonates a scientist, and beats up high numbers of people in a precise frenzy of perfectly executed martial arts moves.

2) Renner plays Cross a bit lighter than Damon played Bourne. He cracks smiles and even a few jokes, and the change in demeanor is for the better: Cross seems more like a man who’s seen actual combat and learned to internalize it through humor, as many do, whereas Damon’s Bourne always gave the impression that secret government programs drained their agents of the ability to enjoy anything at the same time as they rid them of empathy for the lives of terrorists.

3) Finally, and this won’t really spoil anything, at the end of Legacy, Cross and his love interest (Weisz) finally escape their pursuers, to live a life of tropical flight, clearly a set up a second Legacy (and one in which Weisz’s character is slated to die, if tradition holds). Up until the last scene, in which we see the couple drifting across a light blue sea on what looks like a pirate ship, their relationship has been totally based on either his ability to kill anyone who attacks her, or her ability to rid his body of a super soldier serum the government slipped him. Since there’s been nothing but action up until this point, it’s a bit hard to swallow that these two are going to be okay living together in a cramped ship on a directionless voyage. What happens to couples like these after they escape trouble and the action slows down? What if they’re sexually incompatible? How long will she be able to live with his PTSD? What if they don’t like similar books, or music, or movies? One way for the next Bourne movie to avoid looking exactly like Legacy is to change gears fully and address what really would be an interesting subject: the relationship life of a man who’s been programmed to kill.

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