The Bourne Legacy (**)

When Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass collectively walked away from a proposed fourth film in the wildly popular and increasingly successful Bourne film franchise, Universal Pictures opted to go forward anyway. By turning the series over completely to Oscar-nominated writer and director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), an architect of the cinematic Bourne franchise (Gilroy had co-written all three previous Bourne films), I am sure the studio felt things were in safe hands. Gilroy got a robust production budget and the greenlight to make this spin-off/relaunch/reboot/reinvention of the franchise the best way he saw fit.

And in the summer of 2012, The Bourne Legacy, very loosely based on the Eric Van Lustbader novel, arrives in theaters with Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Town) assuming top billing as Aaron Cross, a secret intelligence agent who, like Jason Bourne before him, has been given several identities and been positioned all around the world. While it is never really clear if Cross has ever met Bourne personally, Cross cannot help but be aware of Bourne, as he, and we, hear Jason Bourne’s name a lot and see his picture frequently in the opening minutes of the film.

From the beginning, Gilroy takes The Bourne Legacy in a different direction. The opening minutes of the film show us Aaron Cross stationed in the remote Alaskan wilderness, training, getting ready, popping pills, climbing mountains, and fighting off carnivorous wolves who likely survived Liam Neeson in The Grey from earlier this year. Concurrent to Cross’ Alaskan adventures, we meet Edward Norton’s character, Eric Byer, the new head of The Program, the secret agent installation that Cross and Bourne and an innumerable amount of agents are a part of. Rachel Weisz joins the series as Dr. Marta Shearing, a medical specialist who is involved in monitoring and overseeing a drug trial program for the agents in The Program.

Shearing and her team have been performing trials on the agents by creating and providing two different pills, which are genetically altering to those who take them. The blue pill (no, not that type of blue pill…) is designed to stimulate brain function and cognitive reasoning, while a green pill accelerates and increases strength, energy, and body mass. As Cross’ supply of pills runs out, he decides to get out of Alaska, stumbling upon another agent in The Program known as Number Three (Oscar Isaac), and an uneasy alliance is formed. But back in Washington, D.C., Byer decides that with Jason Bourne gone, missing, and untraceable, The Program needs to be shut down and the agents involved executed. Systematically, Byer has the agents taken out, but when Cross gets away, the government focuses a sizable amount of resources on taking out Cross and Dr. Shearing, who Cross finds and partners with after Shearing survives a frightening laboratory shooting spree.

The Bourne trilogy in many ways redefined the secret agent movie for a generation, or at least the last decade. What was initiated effectively by director Doug Liman and perpetuated to impressive degree by director Paul Greengrass, the Bourne films were written extremely well, complex and intriguing without being laborious, and in Matt Damon, showcased a leading man who handled the action-movie requirements with proper intensity, physicality, and charisma. The Bourne franchise also cemented Damon as a top shelf, A-list movie star and despite being a bit older than Damon was at the outset of his trilogy, Jeremy Renner is seemingly on a parallel track with this Bourne film.

Renner is all in with this performance and quite clearly, he relishes the opportunity to finally have name-above-the-title recognition. With Oscar-winner Weisz at his side, Renner develops real and palpable chemistry with her and they make a pretty satisfying team. Weisz plays a scattered, frustrated, but willing assistant in Renner’s survival and presents a different kind of female counterpart, when compared to what you commonly get in a film like this. True to her talents, Weisz finds believability here. Renner is also quite good and outside of their relationship, there are some deeply intense moments in The Bourne Legacy, not the least of which is the chilling and downright unsettling mass shooting scene in Shearing’s medical laboratory.

And then we have the rest of the film. The largest issue with The Bourne Legacy is not only that it is bloated with exposition and backstory, rare for a fourth film in a series, but the entire premise of the film is borderline ridiculous. Throughout the film, Cross is motivated by essentially being an addict to his meds, or “Chems” as he calls them. I cannot count the number of times he demands that Dr. Shearing tell him where his “Chems” are, or implores her to help him find his drugs. Perhaps a drinking game can originate from this? After a while, you can tolerate that our hero is a drug-addicted man, addicted without his knowledge, fearful that his superhuman strength and intelligence will eventually run out and he will become easy pickings for his own government’s kill team.

Then though, you start to think about that a little deeper. In a series that has shown us Jason Bourne outwitting secret agents, double agents, and besting the CIA, the federal government, and exposing and bringing to light two top secret criminal Operations, we now have a 135-minute film where a guy essentially wants to get his “Chems.” To say the entire film becomes a letdown vis a vis anticipation and expectation is a bit of an understatement.

I am a big fan of Jeremy Renner and have long anticipated his “shot” at headlining movies. Coming off of his back-to-back Oscar nominations for The Hurt Locker and The Town, Renner’s trajectory seems perfectly aligned to have him headline a franchise such as this one. Where he is sold short emanates from a surprisingly flimsy, one-note screenplay that may allow him to develop his Aaron Cross character a bit, but builds that development around a major achilles heel that is rather annoying and off-putting. Anticipating he will get one more go at this, I hope and trust Tony Gilroy returns to form with the next Bourne film and Renner’s potential is not squandered; or even worse, he becomes viewed as a guy who cannot deliver in the spotlight.

The Bourne Legacy‘s failure should not be Renner’s fault. After all, I cannot recall Matt Damon staggering around trying to score on a drug fix in any of his 342 or so minutes on screen as Jason Bourne.