The busy Matt Damon–less Bourne picture, The Bourne Legacy, has the worst first sequence I’ve seen in a thriller, a botched climax, and a weirdly limp non-ending. There’s some dandy stuff in between, though. I honestly don’t know why I made my way to the exit thinking, That was a pretty good rush! instead of, That was a cynical shambles that couldn’t begin to stand on its own! I think maybe the Bourne films have wormed their way into the collective psyche the way the Bond movies did in the sixties, so that some of us are prepared to accept them as long as they deliver the jacked-up paranoid goods.
We’ve come to buy unblinkingly into the premise that our government will go to any lengths — sacrificing even the most outstanding and committed of its agents — to keep its ugly secrets from getting out. We’re even more nihilistic than in the Watergate era, when something like Three Days of the Condor could haunt our dreams for weeks and months. (It still chills me to the bone.) The loss of individual freedoms to maintain our Freedom is now just fodder for noisy chases and bone-crunching fights. Can we hope for Congressional oversight? A crusading press? That is, as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog would put it, to poop on.
The new star is Jeremy Renner as a man named Aaron Cross, first seen floating like Damon’s Bourne at the end of The Bourne BBQ Smackdown or whatever the third picture was called. But he’s not playing dead — he’s on some sort of training mission in the northern wilderness. Director and co-writer Tony Gilroy crosscuts between Cross and … a lot of things. We’re getting a side vantage on the events of the three other films, a mash-up of various U.S. intelligence bureaucrats — especially a new character, Edward Norton as “Eric Byer” — reacting to Bourne’s bean-spilling rampage. If you haven’t seen the other Bournes, abandon hope of understanding what’s happening. If you saw them when they first came out, you’ll have a splendid chance to test your long-term memory. I scored about a 40 on a scale of 100.
It emerges that Renner is playing a kind of machine-man, mentally and physically enhanced by pills of sundry colors. He’s also essentially a blank. Renner has a talent for wiping himself clean from role to role and rebuilding, but in this case he can stop right after he wipes. Cross is purely reactive, focusing on one superhuman task or calculation after the next. If you’ve only seen Renner in this and The Avengers, you might think he’s an interesting but limited actor. His unnervingly hyperalert sociopath in The Town proves otherwise.
The fulcrum of The Bourne Legacy is Norton’s Byer, who delivers the key speech to Cross in a flashback, after an unspecified mission in which innocents apparently die. “We are the sin eaters,” he tells the ravaged agent. Their job, you see, is to do terrible things and bury them so far down that “the rest of it” — presumably the American ideal of freedom and justice for all — “can stay pure.” In the present, Byer angrily silences a subordinate who raises peripheral questions about the tippy-top secret program that Jason Bourne is out to expose. He uses a disease metaphor: Their job, he says, is to stop the infection, which means not just shutting down the program that created a group of enhanced super-agents but killing them all, every man and woman. Norton is excellent at standing with his arms folded in front of video screens — tracking drone strikes on his own people, in some cases — looking grim but determined. Byer’s conscience isn’t entirely clear — but clear enough for him to function at an unimaginably high level. The question is whether Cross can function at an even higher one.
The Bourne Legacy would be overly dry with only Renner, Norton, and other bland-looking white men playing espionage games. Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing provides much-needed screams, tears, and hysterical cheeps. Shearing is one of those researchers — we’re led to believe there are thousands — who welcome the chance to experiment on humans for reasons of “pure science,” without bothering their pointy little heads about the ethics of their job. She learns the hidden costs of what she does in a scene midway through the movie. Marta is alone in a half-finished country house after a horrific trauma when a pair of agents comes to call, one a woman therapist who begins by gently gauging the shaken scientist’s emotional well-being. The best thing in Gilroy’s Michael Clayton was the final scene between George Clooney and Tilda Swinton, the one in which the vise tightened click by click on Tilda. This is another vice-tightening sequence, but scary instead of triumphant, and with a long and explosive punch line. Finally, a sequence we can follow! After this, Gilroy owns us.
He’s not an especially good action director, though — certainly not in the league of Paul Greengrass, who gave the last two Bournes their vertigo-inducing momentum. The chases are fast and loud and edited for maximum jangle, but the staging is witless. The unveiling of an even fiercer machine-man to take down Cross promises much — Thor versus Hulk! Terminator 1 versus Terminator 2! — but comes to little. There’s the possibility of a Flowers for Algernon–like mental regression that would give Renner a chance to show his acting chops, but Gilroy lets the opportunity slide. The last shot is one of those “That’s it???” moments where you can almost see the words “franchise” and “tentpole” blinking in the corner of the screen — and feel a clammy hand on your wallet. The Bourne Legacy is the rare action thriller in which the tag-along woman character makes all the difference. Weisz is a superb actress. Listen to how she uses her breath — or the sudden shortness thereof — to signal confusion, her knowledge of “genomic targeting” emerging in bursts between choked-up silences, her character ravaged but still enough of a scientist to lift her head and gaze appraisingly at her once and future subject.
Over a decade after Conspiracy Theory and Enemy of the State and the futuristic Minority Report, we’re no longer shocked by scenarios in which governments employ ubiquitous satellites and surveillance cameras to follow anyone anywhere: We just assume that we’re always being tracked and that the scrutiny will only get worse (or better, depending on your degree of affection for Orwellian totalitarianism). The Bourne Legacy adds the idea that our behaviors can be redesigned — that we can be ruthlessly programmed without our knowledge or consent. I’d feel more grateful to its makers if I didn’t feel similarly programmed by expertly tooled sequels like this one. You say Matt Damon won’t commit to a fourth Bourne without a decent script? Our scientists can surmount the problem. We know what people want to see. We know where they’ll be on August 10, 2012.