The quintessential moment of The Bourne Legacy, which continues and expands the scope of the first three Bourne movies, comes when one top-secret intel type tells another, of a hit squad, “That was a D-Track team we sent in there!” (or, possibly, “That was a detrac team we sent in there!”). The second official replies, “I don’t know what that is.”
Neither do I, and neither do you, and for long stretches of the film, which stars a thoroughly convincing Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a walking lethal weapon who is part of the same program that yielded Jason Bourne, The Bourne Legacy is completely incomprehensible. There are reams of jargon, heaps of secret code names, miles of exposition. Yet I was completely enthralled by this magnificent mumbo-jumbo. As Woody Allen says at the end of Sleeper, “I don’t know what the hell that means but it sounds brilliant.”
This time Matt Damon declined to participate so we begin with Renner, the The Hurt Locker star, diving underwater in frigid Alaska on some sort of spy scavenger hunt. He doesn’t know what he’s doing there and, even after the movie ended, I didn’t either either. His Aaron Cross pulls off some nifty stunts to survive, then runs into a fellow secret agent and narrowly escapes death. Back in D.C. the back-office hacks led by Eric Byer (Norton) are trying to kill him with drones. Cross finds a tracking device in his leg, cuts it out, and for some reason decides it needs to go down the throat of a live wolf to fool the drones. Couldn’t he just throw it away and let the drone hit it where it lies? Still, watching Renner tangle with a wolf is lively stuff, and things are just getting going.
Soon the movie is not only rolling, but roaring along as Cross goes on the run with a biochemist (Rachel Weisz) who has been overseeing a secret program to turn him and others into super fighting machines with immense strength, intelligence, and recuperative abilities. But Cross is missing the one final dose he needs to lock him into superman status, and without it he’ll turn back into the slow-witted chump he once was. Yes, this movie is kind of like the old Cliff Robertson film Charly crossed with Rambo and Three Days of the Condor. The only place to get the drugs Cross needs is in a lab in Manila, on the other side of the planet.
Tony Gilroy, who wrote the earlier Bourne movies and also wrote and directed the George Clooney film Michael Clayton, takes over directing duties from Paul Greengrass, who crammed the last two Bourne movies with all those breathless, in-your-face action scenes. You can’t tell the difference between Gilroy’s style and Greengrass’s, and this is high praise. As in Greengrass’s films (and the 2002 The Bourne Identity, which was directed by Doug Liman), the chases and fights are sweaty, intense. Cross, like Jason Bourne, is a thinking machine as much as a fighting machine, always planning a move ahead. For instance, he calculates that the easiest way to escape a factory floor is to simply fire a few shots at the ceiling to cause a stampede and disappear in the crowd.
The film is missing a love scene and Norton is a little too bland to be much of a villain even as he gives the orders to exterminate everyone connected with a blown operation. But none of the film’s flaws really matter because of the swiftness of Gilroy’s pacing, which credits the audience with being able to process gigabytes of information from fast-talking characters. In this regard, movies have come a long way in just the last 20 years: Compare the density of the scripts for the recent Batman movies, for instance, with the much thinner and more childish ones for the Tim Burton cycle that began in 1989. I don’t know if all of the pieces of the Bourne movies fit together (and I suspect they don’t) but movies like The Bourne Legacy feel smart, and that’s part of the appeal — trying to decode everything that’s going on. In other words, there won’t be a moment when you’re bored and checking your email.
Even if you can’t keep up with the torrent of operational chatter, though, the movie is a thrill. Gilroy ferociously stages an assassination attempt in a country house in Maryland, keeps the suspense at the breaking point for a long time as Bourne and the biochemist seek to escape the U.S. using false ID, and saves the best for last, winding up with an exhaustive chase through Manila that is one of the most chaotic yet effective action scenes in recent years. No one went to the previous Bourne movies because they had any great love for Matt Damon (most of his previous movies flopped) and with Jeremy Renner this action franchise is resounding, refreshed, and re-Bourne.
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