The sorta-reboot of the Bourne series—goodbye Matt Damon, hello Jeremy Renner—didn't screen by WW's print deadlines, which made us so angry we could've hammer-punched a stranger in the mouth. Fortunately, we calmed down and wrote a review instead.
Critics Grade: B
The greatest gift Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Bourne series, ever brought to the audience is a misplaced sense of smarts. Sure, the films, based on Robert Ludlum's bestsellers, are complex stories of espionage, full of globetrotting action, pseudo-scientific chatter, and dozens of A-list character actors talking fast as they look at satellite monitors and discuss secret government programs. Gilroy's magic trick, though, is empowering his audience to figure out all the twists, turns and double-crosses before the heroes do—a task that feels rewarding, despite the fact that, when you pull the curtain back, the complex tapestry he weaves could be dismantled by simply blowing on one of its many loose threads.
That's smart writing: engaging without being overcomplicated, easy enough to decipher but not so dumb that you roll your eyes. As filmed in the series' intro by Doug Liman and the two sequels by Paul Greengrass, the payoff is huge. We get a seemingly dense, increasingly engaging tale of an amnesiac ass-beater, masterfully pieced together with some of the best car chases ever filmed, brutal hand-to-hand combat and a stellar Matt Damon choke-slamming his pretty-boy image and bitch-slapping action tropes so hard that even 007 took notice, with the franchise toughening up its aesthetic for Casino Royale.
Now Damon-less, and suffering a bit from the residuals, Gilroy moves the story in a slightly different direction with The Bourne Legacy. But not that different. We're still globe trotting. Our hero is still cracking skulls with random objects. Engines are still revving, and glances are still stoic. This time, though, it's Jeremy Renner, continuing his quest to appear in every single action franchise ever, as Aaron Cross, who we meet as he's training in Alaska by free-climbing up mountains and making Liam Neeson look like a bitch with his wolf-punching prowess. The real, non-lupine danger comes when Cross and the rest of the genetically modified agents in the program are targeted for death as a direct result of Bourne's actions in Supremacy. Cross finds himself dodging missiles, brandishing assault rifles and seeking to find more of the medication that transformed him from a learning-disabled grunt into a super-agile, hyper-intelligent warrior.
That's right. Our hero's a drug addict afraid to delve back into the abyss of reduced intelligence. So he seeks out the genetic doctor who designed the enhancing drugs (Rachel Weisz, providing the humanity). She survived a harrowing (and all-too-timely) office massacre, only to become the target of Ed Norton's sinister government puppet-master, who dispatches super-soldiers and weaker agents to chase the duo as they punch their way across the globe, eventually arriving at a pharmaceutical plant in Manila, presumably so we can get an awesome dirt bike/Jeepney chase out of it.
All the while, Gilroy keeps the camera moving at the pace of an attention-deficient toddler off his meds, but forgoes Greengrass' shaky-cam nausea in favor of a more straightforward approach. Unfortunately, he also forgoes the series' realism, relying all too much on CGI augmentation. Where the original trilogy managed a constant sense of peril through its amazing stunt work, there is a stark contrast in believability here, where some characters teeter on superpowers. The cartoonishness pervasive. That's not to say there aren't some amazing action sequences: a throwdown in a dilapidated mansion ranks among the series' best melees; the extended Manila sequence, which bounds from shanties to rooftops to highways, is pure chaos; and the office massacre is chilling. But these are cheapened every time a computerized jet shoots by, or a soldier drops 20 feet and sticks the landing while hardly bending his knees.
Then there's the matter of the film's startling lack of Damon. This will be the biggest gripe, and while the star is certainly missed, Renner is an apt replacement, bringing a startling physical prowess and easy charisma. Unlike Bourne, Cross is a bit of a chucklehead who isn't above cracking jokes or totally freaking out after he dispatches a group of baddies. Wiesz matches him with a timid performance that erupts into panic in the wake of her ordeal, and Norton…well, he just screams at monitors and orders people to kill Renner, as is the protocol for tie-wearing bad guys in these films. (In contrast, villains in designer sunglasses do parkour and get killed by pens.)
Legacy is most certainly the series' weakest entry, a franchise-feeder that has neither the focus nor the surprises of the first three. But that isn't necessarily a slight in a series this terrific. We still get the action and intrigue, plus a great hero who does cool shit like MacGyvering fire extinguishers into nail guns and hammer-punching people through windows. The only real problem here is Gilroy's direction, which lacks the unique style of his predecessors. As such, the movie comes off as generic, especially given the dumbed-down storyline. All is forgiven as soon as Renner's knuckles go back to work. If only we had Jason Bourne's condition and could forget Damon, this would stand as a solid start to a promising series.