With The Bourne Legacy, writer/director Tony Gilroy – the head screenwriter behind Universal Studio’s three previous Bourne pictures – aims to do something far riskier than prolonging the lifespan of a popular action franchise without the use of its iconic leading man (Matt Damon, whose Jason Bourne gives this series its title): he wants to marry the pop thrills of the Bourne franchise to the heady, morally ambigious skullduggery of a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The Bourne Legacy has all the violent hallmarks of its three predecessors), but there’s a greater focus on administrative procedure than there was in either Doug Liman or Paul Greengrass’ Bourne entries.

As he demonstrated in the Academy Award-winning Michael Clayton and his underrated 2009 caper Duplicity, Gilroy is interested in the bureaucracy of evil – the spiritual cost of dealing with the devil in between coffee breaks and office action reports – and aside from a thrilling showdown with a Predator drone, much of The Bourne Legacy‘s first eighty minutes takes a fascinatingly mundane look at international espionage.  When the film’s chief baddie, intelligence operative Rick Byer (a compellingly logy Edward Norton), tries to purge the CIA of all its black ops assassination programs in order to avoid a global scandal, he rarely talks in terms of “killing.”  He and his team of wonks (which include Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, and Midnight in Paris‘ Corey Stoll) see themselves as doctors, trying to contain a cancer before it spreads, and it takes a minute before we realize that the hushed, terse conversations they share (as screenwriters, Gilroy and his brother Dan give his talented cast far tastier dialogue to chew on than this kind of film usually gets) mean the difference between life and death.  In that light, the Predator attack scene takes on a bleak humor; as viscerally upsetting as it is for Bourne proxy Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) to dodge and deflect the drone’s missiles, the desk jockey piloting the thing from thousands of miles away doesn’t break a sweat.

It is this disconnect between bureaucratic rendition and actual violence that gives The Bourne Legacy its particular distinction amidst the other Bourne movies, and I found the overall experience surprisingly compelling.  This isn’t a tossed-off remake or reboot; Gilroy’s got a real story to tell here, one that builds off Bournes 1 – 3 in interesting ways, and he does it with focus and intensity.

That’s no small feat, considering Gilroy doesn’t have the benefit of Jason Bourne himself, the great Matt Damon.  Taking his work in the trilogy as one big whole, it’s remarkable to see how carefully modulated Damon’s performance is, how the sweet, confused superman of The Bourne Identity slowly hardens into the dead-eyed automaton of The Bourne Ultimatum.  What Gilroy does have is Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Avengers), and both Renner and Gilroy deserve a lot of credit for not turning Aaron Cross into a Jason Bourne-rehash.

Cross is more playful, with a ready sense of humor, and unlike Bourne, he knows exactly who he was – a mentally retarded, physically crippled war veteran desperate to escape his limitations, even if it meant surrendering his body to a cause he never fully grasped.  That knowledge makes Cross a more willing participant in the geopolitical madness that ensnares him and, admittedly, gives The Bourne Legacy its most potentially murky narrative turn.  Cross (and the film) doesn’t share Bourne’s need to learn who he was and why he chose the path he did; he just wants to evade capture long enough to get the meds that boost his strength and higher brain functions so that he doesn’t regress (a la Flowers for Algernon, believe it or not) into the person he used to be.  The drug hunt is a little less dramatically satisfying than Bourne’s quest; Cross doesn’t have the same moral outrage that made Jason Bourne such a touching figure.  But Renner’s compact, subtle performance still gives you the dimensions of a man slowly learning to distrust the system – he also makes palpable Cross’ fear of his own body failing him – and Gilroy uses it to hang some salient points about the military complex’s worst impulses.

What’s more, Renner isn’t responsible for carrying the whole film alone.  The Bourne Legacy is really a three-hander between him, Norton’s villainous company man, and a brave, scared research scientist (Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz), and that split focus allows for a broader scope.  Whenever Gilroy is not following Cross kicking and punching, he’s delving into the minutia that makes for a government cover-up or showing the ethical compromises made at the intersection of Big Pharma and Big Government, and because Norton and Weisz are so subtle and engaging (even after Weisz’s character goes on the run with cross and becomes Faye Dunaway from Three Days of the Condor), Gilroy’s political agenda never feels preachy; these are people deeply committed to doing the right thing even if it leads them in the wrong direction.

That said, Gilroy doesn’t overlook the “man on the run” stuff, which upholds the Bourne franchise’s standard for gritty, ground-level mayhem.  Working with the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Gilroy deviates from the shaky-cam aesthetic of the last two pictures; the action is clearer and more geographically sound.  And incredibly varied – we get a buffet of different styles, from outdoor survivalist adventures to close-quarters shootouts (a battle in a decrepit woodland house, which begins with a Hitchcockian interrogation scene and then transitions into whiplash savagery) to high-speed pursuits (the film’s climax, a thrilling parkour-to-motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila).  Bourne stunt coordinator Dan Bradley gives the violence his customary intensity and invention – he loves to devise situations that let us watch Renner in perpetual motion – without sacrificing the real pain and tragedy behind the bloodshed.  A shootout in Weisz’s medical laboratory has chilling weight, especially given its similarities to the recent Aurora shooting.  But the Bourne movies have always aimed to excite and terrify, and in many ways, it’s Legacy‘s adherance to the same action balance that ties it most directly to the franchise’s established tone.

Ironically, then, The Bourne Legacy‘s one flaw, is an overall fidelity to the previous Bournes, especially The Bourne Ultimatum.  Gilroy uses that feature as a bridge to the new film; as Ultimatum ends, Jason Bourne re-emerges in Manhattan and exposes the Treadstone/Blackbriar conspiracy that created him, and his actions motivate the CIA and Norton to eliminate any potential operations with ties to Treadstone, Blackbriar, or Bourne in order to avoid further public scrutiny.  It’s an ingenious setup, but Gilroy keeps drawing out Ultimatum/Legacy connections long after he’s successfully transitioned over to Renner’s journey; a late-stage appearance from Bourne regulars David Strathairn and Joan Allen feels like an unnecessary intrusion in the main story even though it marks a key development in the Ultimatum timeline.  I understand Universal’s desire to connect Legacy to the other films (as well as its hope to cultivate an environment where Damon could potentially return to the series), but I think the new stuff is effective enough on its own – it only needs a minimum of callbacks.

But that’s a small blip on an otherwise fine action epic.  The Bourne series is the most consistently excellent action franchise of the past twenty years, and this new Legacy maintains the same level of quality while striking off in interesting new directions.  It doesn’t have Jason Bourne, but ultimately, it doesn’t need him; who’d a thunk Tony Gilroy – a writer, no less – would become this series’ true superman?

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