There’s exactly one, and no more than one, thrilling sequence in The Bourne Legacy, the fourth installment of the indefatigable franchise. It’s a set piece that earns all the clichés appropriate to such a spectacle: it’s visceral and white-knuckle tense; sits you at the edge of your seat; makes you dig half-moon shapes into your palms; and girlfriends will wrap their arms tightly around their boyfriends’ forearms. It’s also utterly horrifying. One successful set piece in 135 minutes, and it involves very little running, no parkour, and no genetically enhanced superheroes from clandestine government projects. Without revealing too much, it is, perhaps, a cinema experience ill-timed to recent events, but viewers who are able to differentiate movies from real-life should be able to enjoy it for what it is: a nasty bit of business, brilliantly shot and cut to its cuticles, one that easily outclasses the mess that surrounds it.
Tony Gilroy is in the director’s chair this time; he’s the series screenwriter, but, unlike the last time he was involved in making a Bourne film, he’s now an experienced filmmaker in his own right. Taking the reins from Paul Greengrass, whose deliberately frenetic and frantic style inspired some commentators to coin the phrase “chaos cinema,” Gilroy manages a tricky balancing act, in that he stays somewhat true to Greengrass’s effects on the brand (some of which now seem quaint), while also making The Bourne Legacy a film that suits his own aesthetic. As was already evident in his first two films as director, Gilroy isn’t terribly interested, like Greengrass, in dropping the viewer into a war zone and slapping them across the face every few seconds. Gilroy is truly in his element in muted, wood-paneled office scenes, where pale-skinned power brokers speak casually of wiping legions of men and women (combatants or otherwise) from the planet, all for the phantom of “national security.” Where Greengrass confused viewers with illegible images and earsplitting sounds, Gilroy’s weapon is language, and his characters frequently drift into absurd litanies of jargon, code, and techspeak, creating for the viewer the sensation that they, to paraphrase an early line in the movie, are in the wrong meeting. Such conflagrations impart their own kind of rush.
More than that, Gilroy loves to shoot; that much was already evident before today. As much as this running, jumping, and standing-still film will allow, the Michael Clayton director exploits every opportunity to indulge his pictorial sense, whether it’s foreground-background interplay (a comical shot involving a downed drone aircraft), or filling the frame with identical, tesselated objects (when the protagonist incites a panicked exodus from a Filipino pill factory, and we’re caught in a sea of masked heads), or simply lighting officious, ramrod prick Edward Norton’s dark eyes with needlepoints of light to suggest impatient, stifled rage.
The Bourne Legacy also benefits from the appearance of a new actor in the lead, Jeremy Renner. Still basking in the glory of The Hurt Locker, which brought him belated recognition after toiling in thankless roles for over a decade, Renner is being groomed to take over two movie franchises, this one and Mission: Impossible. If conclusions could be drawn from the strength of his performances, he’s a lock for the Bourne series, seen here giving a true star performance of great humor and swagger. Whereas Matt Damon’s invincible Jason Bourne was defined by angelic purity and humorless stoicism, of a kind that inevitably lent itself to various Christ poses, the compact pit-bull Renner brings his capacity for playing a sweet devil, the proverbial kid in a candy store. His Aaron Cross is also a more roundly developed character than Jason Bourne (whose psychological depth began and ended with not wanting to shoot a little kid in the first movie), as the story reveals that his genetically enhanced mind and physique are aspects of his identity he’s come to think of as his rightful bounty, as opposed to his burden. Flashbacks of a badly beaten and mentally degraded Cross—is this the soul of The Hurt Locker‘s Sergeant William James after being off the juice for too long?—make it hard for the audience to disagree.
On the other hand, this is an unbelievably silly movie, with a script (co-written by the director and his brother, Dan Gilroy) that must eventually come to terms with the fact that it’s just another globetrotting spy caper. Viewed from a distance, it’s clear that The Bourne Legacy is made of two tried-and-true premises, hastily joined in the middle. The first is the one about the spy who discovers that his employers are trying to kill him, and who naturally decides to fight back, solve the mystery, get the girl, and so on. Given how many times we’ve been around this track (the first three Bourne films put together, and Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, are only the most recent examples), it comes as no surprise that the execution here is gamely efficient, if not exactly watertight. The second chapter, in which we find ourselves once a certain threshold has been crossed, and the disavowed-agent-fights-back thread begins producing diminishing returns, can roughly be described as “our objective is halfway around the world, so that’s where we’re going.” It doesn’t matter what the objective is, only that our hero must get there and put some ball in some net, and that danger keeps apace with his hot-footed travels. You must resist asking the movie what’s at stake (you may reach a point, as I did, where you start to wonder if Norton and his lackeys can adequately explain why they have to track our man down) or the whole thing collapses. The final scene, which is sadly identical to the one that concludes The Darkest Hour, leaves a bitter aftertaste: an obligatory open door to another installment, tacked onto a film that can scarcely retain the material integrity to furnish an adequate third act.