“The Bourne Redundancy” was the title that Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two Jason Bourne movies, proposed for any future installment. When you’ve successfully turned Robert Ludlum’s page-tuning spy novels into three genre-defining blockbusters, and titled the last film “Ultimatum”, where do you go from there? If you're Universal Pictures, you find a way to keep on going.
Rather than start from scratch with a new property, which would require acquainting the audience through expensive marketing, director Tony Gilroy, who scripted the original trilogy, has found a different approach for The Bourne Legacy: spinning off a parallel story that places a new character in Bourne’s cinematic universe, at the same time. Smooth-cheeked amnesiac Matt Damon has been substituted by Jeremy Renner’s squatter, lumpier Aaron Cross. If you’re going to make a Bourne movie without Damon, Renner isn’t a bad choice, but the results are less a thrilling reimagining of a popular franchise and more an exercise in squeezing the last toothpaste out of the tube. Renner is game, and there are a scattered few moments that approach the power and persuasion of the original but the overall mood is rehashed and redundant.
Gilroy opens his story with an echo of the curtain-raising shot in Doug Liman’s first Bourne film, as a body floats in clear blue water. The floater is Cross, in Alaska on a solo survival course equipped with only a powerful rifle and a pillbox filled with blue and green tablets. He is part of a CIA programme that develops better soldiers through chemistry; super-strong, steroidal geniuses with lightning-fast reflexes and endless stamina. When the spy is ready to come in from the cold, he makes his rendezvous with a fellow agent (Oscar Isaac) in a remote cabin, awaiting transport back to Washington. Instead, an unmanned drone descends through a flurry of snow and blows the place to bits. Having made it out alive, Cross makes the long trek home to discover he is one of nine super-agents whose spymasters (led by a grizzled Edward Norton and a whiskey-swilling Stacy Keach) have decided are now surplus to requirements. Now classified as a dangerous rogue agent and cut off from his supply of medication, Cross seeks out Dr Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a medical scientist at a secret laboratory where the selected agents are tested and dosed.
When he finds her, the good doctor has just survived a mysterious shooting at the hands of a seemingly hypnotised colleague. Without his medication, the preternaturally agile Cross would revert back to his ordinary, everyday dull-mindedness, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. As the one link to the drugs, and with his powers slowly fading, Cross must convince Marta to escape with him. Her mind is made up when a tense interrogation with a seemingly kindly psychologist turns into another, even more deadly shootout. Somehow they must find their way to a clandestine drug factory on the other side of the world, with the massed weight of the CIA and their fantastic surveillance technology hot on their trail. There are glimpses of Matt Damon’s Bourne on television news reports and cameos from returning characters but none of that back-story feels connected to the frantic events unfolding.
Renner’s everyman anonymity worked to his advantage for his breakout role in The Hurt Locker but here he is overly convincing as a superhuman killing machine, robotic and efficient but burdened by an underwritten motivation and lacking any emotional ante. Gilroy’s script, co-written with his brother Dan, doesn’t help, with the story delivered in two-sentence chunks that follow a discernable, repetitive pattern: Norton glowers at a glowing computer screen and arranges his face in a pensive pinch while Renner and Weisz kick down doors and shoot off guns.
The limitless surveillance power of the agency is convincingly realised but smothered in a babble of jargon while the action sequences have all the jumpy, crunchy verisimilitude that money can buy but no cinematic point (which, of course, money cannot buy). In the closing stages Gilroy introduces an Asian super-villain with extraordinary staying-power who trails Renner and Weisz on a crushingly familiar chase over the vibrant roof-tops of a developing country, as the clock ticks slowly on and interest levels flat-line. We’ve seen it all before, and better, in the Bourne franchise. At one point, the words “no more” appear scrawled in eyeliner on a mirror, a promise nobody involved has any intention of keeping.