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The Bourne Legacy

August 14, 2012
The Bourne Legacy

In the latest installment of the Bourne series of international spy thrillers, series writer Tony Gilroy takes the director’s chair while sharing the script with his brother, Dan. The story of The Bourne Legacy departs from the Bourne novels’ focus on Jason Bourne himself. But Eric Van Lustbader had taken over writing from Robert Ludlum by this point, anyway, and breaking away frees Gilroy up to explore the wider world of fallout from the incidents directly involving Bourne himself. The result is a taut, intelligent, and satisfying game of cat-and-mouse that knows how to tell a story without assuming the audience is composed of idiots that require spoon-feeding.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to be familiar with the original Bourne trilogy, but it really helps to remember that Bourne was part of a secret CIA black-ops program called Treadstone, which was on the verge of being exposed to the world by whistleblower Pamela Landy. As the incidents from The Bourne Ultimatum play out in London, a government auditing team (Ed Norton, Donna Murphy, Michael Chernus, and Corey Stoll) convene to determine what other programs Treadstone and Landy might compromise.

Top on the list is Outcome — a cousin to Treadstone involving more biological than psychological methods — which they decide to shut down completely. Most of the agents have their medications swapped out for poison pills, but for the two that happen to be at a remote outpost in Alaska it’s more convenient to just send a Predator drone in with a few missiles. But one of them — Outcome #5 (Jeremy Renner), who goes by Aaron Cross — manages to escape. And, highly trained as he is, the first order of business is to restock on his pills since his handlers probably aren’t about to refill his prescription anytime soon.

At the same time the audit team also needs to shut down the relevant personnel at a biotechnology research lab in Maryland. Again one of them, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), manages to survive the initial attempt. Cross manages to hook up with her and they set out to find some way to keep from being killed.

Unfortunately, Gilroy is no less chaotic in his direction of intense action sequences than Paul Greengrass was. Luckily for most of the film this doesn’t present a problem; this is not a shoot-em-up or a martial arts film, and close-up, hand-to-hand combat doesn’t play a big role. Instead, Cross trades mostly on his intelligence, preferring a sniper’s role. Gilroy shows him thinking on his feet, and gives us just enough of a hint to enjoy watching the plans unfold with clockwork precision.

Until, that is, the climax. The last twenty minutes go completely off the rails in a giant mess of a chase sequence that resembles nothing so much as one of those protracted fights between Peter and the Chicken on Family Guy. And the biggest difference is that Family Guy‘s directors and animators are better at establishing a coherent sense of place from shot to shot than Gilroy is.

The ending aside, Gilroy’s script is sharp, saying just enough out loud to get the point across to an attentive audience. The flip side is that if you weren’t paying attention it would be easy to get very lost, very quickly, and there isn’t a lot of distracting action to fall back on when that happens.

Gilroy builds up the story of Outcome — and of Cross’ and Shearing’s involvement — with a cool efficiency, slipping into a quick flashback or a tight bit of exegesis as necessary. He also relies on his cast to communicate what his words leave out, and Renner, Weisz, and Norton all rise to the occasion.

With The Bourne Legacy, Tony Gilroy has managed to reboot his series without actually going back and treading the same, familiar ground in order to continue the larger story. Because, when it comes down to it, Jason Bourne alone is boring. Aaron Cross alone is boring, too. The interesting story is Treadstone, Blackbriar, Outcome, Larx, and all the other programs, the figures behind them, and what they’ll do to protect their positions. By dropping his main character, Gilroy frees himself to tell those stories.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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