Review: ‘The Bourne Legacy’ features nice work but feels like treading water

Hollywood is obsessed with franchise building, often disregarding logic and narrative coherence in an effort to keep squeezing cash out of a property long after any natural storytelling momentum has disappeared.

The longer the series wears on, the less the “Bourne” films have anything to do with Robert Ludlum’s original novel.  That’s fine, of course.  The filmmakers are under no obligation to do straight adaptations, and at this point, it feels like they’ve created something that stands alone, inspired by Ludlum’s ideas but only loosely connected to the world he built.  At this point, Tony and Dan Gilroy are the primary architects of this series, and while the overall action aesthetic of the series has influenced most of the mainstream action movies being made these days, what they’re doing narratively is sort of unique, and worth closer examination.

Matt Damon’s performance as Jason Bourne was a major part of the appeal of the first three films in the series, and he made even the most implausible parts of the films feel possible.  Losing a movie star for a sequel can be disastrous, but thankfully, Gilroy’s laid enough groundwork over the course of the series that the switch they make this time to Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as the new focus of the film feels quite natural.  Cross is part of a parallel program to the one that created Bourne, and he’s a generation or two down the line.  Unlike Bourne, Cross is well aware of what he is and how he was created and why, and at the start of the film, he’s out in the field, training in the most rugged terrain possible.  This film overlaps with “The Bourne Ultimatum” in terms of chronology, and it is because of Jason Bourne’s actions that the people in charge of Aaron Cross and the other members of his program decide that they have no choice but to burn everything to the ground and leave no evidence.

Since that entails killing agents who have been trained to survive almost anything, it seems almost inevitable that one of them would slip through the net, even if accidentally.  Once Cross realizes that he was intentionally targeted, he begins to immediately cover his ass and prepare to disappear.  There’s a problem, though.  Unlike Bourne, Cross’s physical and mental enhancements are regulated by a regularly applied schedule of medications, his “chems.”  There are two pills every day, and at the start of the film, he’s running low on both because he’s been out in the field. By the time he reaches Weisz, he’s basically got nothing left, and he thinks she’s going to have access to more since she’s part of the program.  She’s responsible for testing his blood and looking at how things are working, though, not the manufacture or distribution of the chems, and she reveals to him that he was actually cycled off one of the drugs without his knowledge.

The problem is that the drug he’s still taking is the one that keeps his mental enhancements sharp, and as we learn in some backstory, Cross didn’t even the minimum IQ requirements for military service without some cheating, turning this into “Flowers For Algernon” with a body count.  Weisz tells him that they can permanently fix it so he never needs the mental chems again, but in order to do that, they have to go to Manila.  The film is actually fairly simple and direct as narratives go, so I’m not sure why people claim to be confused by it.  There are a number of ways it folds back into “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but if you don’t remember the specifics of that film, it shouldn’t matter.  “The Bourne Legacy” tells enough of a stand-alone story to work even for first-time viewers.

There are some issues.  Familiarity is one.  We’ve seen three other films in the series, and while details may have changed, the general aesthetic is the same, and the action is certainly recognizable.  And while I think the film stands alone narratively, it is incredibly thin.  Renner wants some meds.  Weisz helps him out.  They get chased.  Moby plays.  Stacy Keach shows up as the most visually unnerving villain in the series, but I’m not sure that’s intentional.  I also think there’s a sequence in the film where one of Weisz’s co-workers gets “triggered” leading to a workplace massacre that is going to be acutely uncomfortable for some viewers right now, and they should know going in that it’s a brutally ugly moment.

Overall, though, I think the “Bourne” franchise looks like it’s chugging along in fairly fine form.  The dream at this point is that they get to make a film next where Renner and Damon dismantle the rest of the organization with Joan Allen and Edward Norton teaming up against them.  If they can pull that off, it would be the “Fast Five” of these films, and it would totally validate what feels somewhat like a placeholder.  A very skilled placeholder, but a placeholder nonetheless.  “The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t tarnish the series, nor does it particularly enhance it.  This is studio franchise filmmaking at its most competent in 2012.  The question you have to ask as a ticketbuyer is if competence is enough.

“The Bourne Legacy” opens everywhere on Friday.