Thursday 4 April 2013

On DVD: "The Bourne Legacy"

In a hushed and hurried CIA confab, a junior wonk makes the rash mistake of pulling up the open file on Jason Bourne, the agent who went into the wind at the end of 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. Responding with a look of withering disdain, Agency go-getter Ric Byer (Edward Norton) - the kind of alpha who can be introduced jogging in the rain at 3.30 in the morning - immediately neutralises the upstart flunky with a curt "you are in the wrong meeting". Long-time series followers will get the message encoded in The Bourne Legacy's opening moments: just as Bourne has absconded, so too has the series star Matt Damon, and with him franchise-boosting director Paul Greengrass. The narrative has changed. Deal with it - or get out of the room.

Under the guidance of series screenwriter Tony Gilroy - returned to the director's chair he occupied on 2007's Michael Clayton and 2009's Duplicity - Legacy has accordingly shifted sideways into a parallel story. Forget Treadstone, now there's a whole other top-secret security program ("Outcome") enlisting all-American boys to do their nation's dirty work; furthermore, we now have an entirely new spy coming in from the cold in a bid to thwart their dastardly machinations. Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross (not, it turns out, his real name) emerges from training in the Alaskan wilds just as Byer and the rest of the Agency are trying to cover up their tracks in the wake of the Bourne scandal, and Treadstone's very public outing.

Where Damon's Bourne was possessed of a hard-edged urgency, Renner - the action man as manufactured by Pillsbury - offers a new and markedly softer personality: part Six Million Dollar Man, part chatty Kathy, not so alienated yet by his assignments as to be thrown when placed in the company of others. He wants to talk, which is precisely what makes him such a risk for his superiors. Bourne, a lone wolf, took on female sidekicks (Franka Potente, Julia Stiles) more or less by accident, as a result of circumstance, but Renner's Cross looks to be on the hunt for a human connection from the get-go; when he runs into the path of fugitive biochemist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), he appears genuinely miffed that, after conducting thirteen physical exams on him in four years, she still only knows him as "number five".

This is as close as the new film gets to anything like heart. Bournes one through three were among the foremost cinematic responses to the Dubya era: critical, whipsmart studies in the damage organisations can wreak on individuals in the name (and under cover) of "the greater good" - albeit with better fistfights than you'd get in the average Michael Moore rabblerouser - their leanness was their own way of cutting through the usual action-flagwaver bullshit. Legacy is a busier venture, keen to indulge both the tentpole action movie's restless, continent-hopping legs (trips to Seoul, Singapore and the Philippines come as shameless sops to the Asian market) and Gilroy's fondness for jargon (Weisz deserves some kind of Nobel Prize for scientific exposition), even as it updates the franchise's basic project for an Obama era of lethal drone strikes and genetically modified "supersoldiers".

To his credit, Gilroy keeps up an appreciable pace - the two hours fly by - and, with the aid of crack cinematographer Robert Elswit (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, There Will Be Blood) and the series' typically superior action choreography, he finds clever, thoughtful, sometimes dynamic ways of threading his own path through this universe: a movement given pleasing illustration in the sequence that requires Cross to slide vertically down the narrow crack between two Manila shanties to liberate Shearing from the attentions of their pursuers, flashing a delighted grin in his new-found combat skills as he does. (That's right, folks: for the first time in this series, we have a smiler.)

But it's also somehow emptier, and its shortfalls when set against the original trilogy become all too apparent in the film's second hour. Norton aside, Legacy's supporting cast can't generate the crackles of intelligence their predecessors brought to their posts: Stacy Keach is a fine actor in the right material, but he's a slow-reversing dumpster truck in the middle of something as frenetic as this. Frequent references to "Homeland" set the viewer to thinking how - as elsewhere - television has come to get the jump on this particular psy-ops material; set The Bourne Legacy against that layered slice of premium pulp, and it's not very much more than a well-executed runaround with slightly less exciting personnel in the lead roles. Not quite the afterthought it might have been, it makes for a moderately diverting sidebar, one that doesn't have to cut to the chase because - bereft of the pulsating interpersonal business that motivated and elevated the originals - the chase is all it really has.

The Bourne Legacy is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK.

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