Friday, August 10, 2012

In Theaters: THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Tony Gilroy.  Written by Tony Gilroy & Dan Gilroy.  Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac, Zeljko Ivanek, Dennis Boutsikaris, Corey Stoll, Donna Murphy, Elizabeth Marvel, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Paddy Considine.  (PG-13, 133 mins)

The films in the Matt Damon-starring BOURNE trilogy are arguably the most highly-regarded action films of the last decade.  As entertaining as 2002's THE BOURNE IDENTITY was, it wasn't until 2004's THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, which found director Paul Greengrass taking over for IDENTITY's Doug Liman, that the series really hit its stride.  The sense of handheld immediacy that Greengrass brought to his breakthrough film BLOODY SUNDAY (2002) translated beautifully to complex chase sequences that, for better or worse, changed the way action films were constructed and clearly influenced how the makers of 2006's CASINO ROYALE approached reinventing James Bond.  That said, Greengrass' techniques aren't easy to imitate effectively, and a lot of action films that have followed in the wake of SUPREMACY and 2007's THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM fell--and continue to fall--victim to hyper-edited, overly-frenetic shaky-cam that renders a lot of the action incomprehensible and headache-inducing.  A lot of people cite Greengrass as the culprit for the action shaky-cam phenomenon, but that's like blaming Quentin Tarantino for all the RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION ripoffs that flooded video stores in the 1990s.  It's not Greengrass' fault that he's great at what he does and other filmmakers aren't.

Which brings us to the hybrid reboot/parallel story THE BOURNE LEGACY, which takes its title from a post-Robert Ludlum Bourne novel by Eric Van Lustbader, but doesn't use Lustbader's novel as a source.  Greengrass and Damon are out, and in their stead are Tony Gilroy and compulsive franchise-joiner Jeremy Renner (following his work in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL and THE AVENGERS).  Taking place at the same time as THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, LEGACY deals with the effects of that film's Treadstone and Blackbriar debacles on Outcome, a top-secret NSA project run by Col. Byer (Edward Norton) and Adm. Turso (Stacy Keach).  When the Jason Bourne story is leaked by the British reporter (Paddy Considine) killed in ULTIMATUM, and a YouTube video surfaces showing Treadstone head Dr. Hirsch (Albert Finney) toasting a top Outcome doc at a birthday dinner, Byer and Turso panic and decide to terminate their Outcome agents to erase any connections between them and the CIA, Treadstone, or Blackbriar.  They believe they've gotten rid of all their agents, but one--Aaron Cross (Renner)--is in the Alaskan wilderness and manages to fool them into thinking he's dead.  Cross is hooked on blue and green pills--provided by Outcome doctors--that enhance his intelligence and combat skills.  He's dangerously low on both and without consistent dosage, those vital skills nosedive.  Outcome's goal was to genetically alter average agents and turn them into espionage supermen.  Making his way back to D.C., Cross eventually joins forces with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who's also being targeted by Outcome for knowing too much about the terminated operation.

Gilroy wrote or co-wrote the three previous BOURNE outings, and on paper, promoting him to director seemed like a win-win.  He knows the franchise and in the meantime, got an Oscar nomination for his directorial debut with 2007's MICHAEL CLAYTON.  But neither MICHAEL CLAYTON nor Gilroy's follow-up, the romantic spy comedy DUPLICITY, were big on intense action, and Gilroy is a writer first.  As a result, THE BOURNE LEGACY has a lot of exposition that borders on incoherence, and there's entirely too much chronic overexplaining where the more people talk, the less sense things make.  What happens in a lot of THE BOURNE LEGACY is that Gilroy the director couldn't part with anything Gilroy the writer had on the page.  There's several instances of deflated tension when characters just talk and talk and talk.  That works in character-driven pieces like MICHAEL CLAYTON, but in something like a BOURNE film, it's a momentum killer.  Renner and Weisz are fine in the leads, and AMERICAN HISTORY X stars Norton and Keach (it's nice to see him on the big screen again) make formidable villains until Gilroy gives them nothing more to do but pace around in their "crisis suite," staring at monitors, gritting their teeth, and barking into speakerphones where their dialogue is essentially reduced to "Where the hell is he?!", "That's him/her!", "We need to contain this!" and "Find Aaron Cross!"  The only thing that's missing is a scene where Norton stands at his office window overlooking D.C., and scans the horizon before gravely intoning "Where are you?"

Too much of THE BOURNE LEGACY just feels like a bland retread, right down to the climactic motorcycle/car chase through the streets of Manila.  Gilroy really drops the ball here, shooting the extended chase as more or less a series of close-ups of the actors.  It's a maddeningly incoherent blur of an action sequence that ends up being another unsatisfying attempt at mimicking Greengrass' techniques.  Cross and Marta are being chased on a motorcycle by a crazed, nameless killing machine (Louis Ozawa Changchien) dispatched by Outcome, and the big payoff is executed with a terrible, video-gamey CGI effect that induced chuckles instead of "Whoa!"'s from the audience.   Bourne faced some memorably lethal assassins in earlier films--The Professor (Clive Owen) in IDENTITY, Kirill (Karl Urban) in SUPREMACY, and Paz (Edgar Ramirez) in ULTIMATUM, but Gilroy can't even be bothered to give Changchien a name, dialogue, or character traits, instead opting to just drop him into the film 110 minutes in, just so there's someone to pursue them for the by now obligatory big chase.

THE BOURNE LEGACY has one of the best casts of the year, but you wouldn't know it by how badly Gilroy wastes most of it.  Past BOURNE co-stars appear in blink-and-you'll-miss-them walk-ons that aren't even enough to be called cameos:  Finney's entire role consists a blurry YouTube clip lasting 15 seconds tops and he appears in a photo later.  David Strathairn has two brief scenes, and one of them is lifted from ULTIMATUM; Scott Glenn as CIA head Ezra Kramer has a short conversation with Keach at the beginning and is gone by the five-minute mark; Joan Allen, so terrific in SUPREMACY and ULTIMATUM, returns as CIA deputy director/scapegoat Pam Landy, appearing just past the 120-minute mark and shown exiting a courthouse and getting into a car, with one line of dialogue.  And an uncredited Considine's two brief shots appear to be from ULTIMATUM.  I realize these characters are here to establish a bridge between ULTIMATUM and LEGACY and to illustrate that they're taking place simultaneously, but why assemble that accomplished a cast and give them absolutely nothing to do?  It's so rare to see the great Albert Finney these days that one can't help but be a little disappointed to find him promimently-billed and getting less screen time than the actual Bela Lugosi in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. 

And why not just recast the Bourne role if Damon wanted to move on?  Why create "Aaron Cross" in the first place?  Have Renner play Bourne and base it one of Lustbader's novels instead of creating some hokey new plot about pharmaceutically-enhanced spies.  There was an element of drama and suspense to the amnesia-stricken Jason Bourne.  Aaron Cross is just after some pills. Are Gilroy and Universal thinking a few films ahead?  Are they anticipating Damon returning to the series?  Or will Bourne return and team up with Cross at some point?   Or better yet, two films from now, will it be revealed that Cross and Bourne are the same person?  With the BOURNE alumni walk-ons and the creation of a new character, there were times in THE BOURNE LEGACY where it started to resemble Blake Edwards trying to keep the PINK PANTHER series going without Peter Sellers.  And there you have it:  THE BOURNE LEGACY is to the BOURNE franchise what CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER was to that series.  That's not a knock on Jeremy Renner, but rather, on the questionable decisions made by the filmmakers.  Passably entertaining at times, lots of returning faces to establish familiarity and sell us on this new model, but it's a decidedly inferior product that pales in comparison to its predecessors.  In trying to continue the BOURNE series, the filmmakers have ended up making what amounts to an uninspired imitation.

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