Four stars; rated PG-13, for considerable violence and action
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Donna Murphy, Stacy Keach, Dennis Boutsikaris, Zeljko Ivanek
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Any doubts about the Bourne film series surviving Matt Damon’s departure can be laid to rest; replacement star Jeremy Renner capably opens a new chapter in Robert Ludlum’s popular franchise.
Although it’s perhaps not the chapter fans were expecting.
Ludlum, who died in 2001, wrote the three books made into the film trilogy that featured Damon between ’02 and ’07. Ludlum’s estate sanctioned Jason Bourne’s literary revival in an ongoing series of sequels by the prolific Eric Van Lustbader, who thus far has written seven more, starting with 2004’s “The Bourne Legacy.”
But although this new film shares the same title, that’s all it shares. Like most latter-day James Bond films, which also borrowed Ian Fleming’s book and short story titles — and nothing else — director/co-scripter Tony Gilroy concocted an entirely new narrative suggested by Ludlum’s conspiracy-laden premise.
And rather than tagging a new actor to play Jason Bourne — thus cleverly leaving the door open for Damon’s return, at some future point — Renner is introduced as Aaron Cross, one of several “sidebar assets” in the U.S. black ops agency’s clandestine Treadstone project.
Gilroy scripted all three of Damon’s “Bourne” films; he also wrote and directed the sleekly sinister George Clooney vehicle, “Michael Clayton,” and had fun riffing on industrial espionage with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, in 2009’s “Duplicity.” So it’s safe to say that Gilroy knows the territory.
Gilroy wisely takes his time with the first act of this new film, introducing Cross during an extreme survival training session in the Alaskan wilderness. Details are sketchy, aside from the same heightened senses and reflexes that characterized Bourne; Cross also carefully maintains a daily regimen of pills — one blue, one green — that are safeguarded in a container worn around his neck.
Back in D.C., high-level spook Eric Byer (Edward Norton) frets over the public appearance of Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), recognized from the previous film in this series. Similarly, Pam Landy (Joan Allen), Jason Bourne’s former handler, has threatened to go public with Treadstone’s seamier details.
Feeling that they have no choice, Byer and fellow conspirator Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) decide to shut down Treadstone and its half-dozen human assets, despite their highly effective work in various world hot spots. And in this realm of unsupervised behavior, “shutting down” has lethal ramifications for said assets.
Rather reprehensibly, the soulless Byer — quickly established as this story’s uber-villain — goes for total shutdown, which also means eliminating all scientists and medical researchers working to produce those little blue and green pills, in the concealed lab of a Maryland pharma-giant dubbed Candent.
Byer’s scheme isn’t entirely successful; one top-security researcher, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), survives and withdraws, shaken, to the comfort of her magnificently dilapidated, three-story fixer-upper mansion in the Maryland woods. Shearing also knows Cross, but only as a man dubbed “Patient No. 5” who routinely submitted to blood panels and full medical work-ups numerous times, during the previous few years.
More to the point, Cross remembers Shearing; when everything goes pear-shaped, she becomes the one person who might be able to help him stay alive — and properly medicated — long enough to figure out what the hell is going on.
Assuming she lives that long.
Although you’ve just read a fairly straightforward précis of Gilroy’s narrative set-up, these details don’t arrive anywhere near as neatly in the film. Indeed, Gilroy and co-scripter Dan Gilroy (an older brother) go out of their way to deliver crucial details through flashbacks, confusing cross-cutting and just plain obfuscation. It could be argued that the screenwriters try too hard to be obtuse, relying overmuch on terse, heated and vaguely worded arguments between Byer, Turso and Cadent CEO Terrence Ward (Dennis Boutsikaris).
It’s difficult to get emotionally involved with the “crisis,” early on, when we haven’t the slightest idea what these guys are quarrelling about.
At the same time, though, Tony Gilroy’s leisurely pace allows us plenty of time to get inside Cross’ head. Like Bourne before him — whom he doesn’t know — Cross had a former life and career before being co-opted by Byer into this soul-deadening black-ops existence. Although properly grim and implacable when necessary, Renner also grants Cross gentler characteristics: curiosity, wary anxiety, compassion and a strong moral compass that Byer definitely wouldn’t admire.
Renner looks friendly, and his Aaron Cross believably slides from companionable smiles to lightning-quick lethal action in the blink of an eye. Renner is totally convincing, and when his expression turns grim, the results aren’t the slightest bit surprising. Indeed, we come to anticipate that transformation.
Unlike so many directors who front-load their action scenes and then have nowhere to go — I’m looking at you, “Total Recall” — Gilroy understands the effective art of building to a suspenseful climax. We learn much about Cross’ capabilities during the extended Alaskan sojourn, but these are hardly melees; his hand-to-hand skills don’t come into play until he returns to civilization. Cross doesn’t fully explode until he resourcefully finds his way to Shearing’s Maryland home, at which point Gilroy kicks his film into a higher gear.
But even this proves to be only an intermediate phase. Gilroy, editor John Gilroy (a younger brother) and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley throw everything into the climactic third act, which opens with a rooftop pursuit and builds to a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase.
Weisz is note-perfect as a lab rat wholly out of her depth, in this dangerous world into which Shearing suddenly is plunged. Her initial slide into hysteria looks and sounds just right, as Weisz digs deep for an inner core of stubborn defiance, in order to hold things together. Later, having (reluctantly) learned to trust Cross, Weisz brings considerable emotional warmth to what follows, her character’s sincerity doing much to elicit similar positive virtues from this man who, at other times, seems more killing machine than human being.
Norton is properly smarmy as Byer, and Tony Award-winning stage actress Donna Murphy is memorably persuasive as his capable and similarly pragmatic aide. Zeljko Ivanek is chilling as Foite, one of Shearing’s Cadent lab colleagues; Elizabeth Marvel is similarly creepy, as a government psychologist whose motives prove to be less than sincere.
Scott Glenn and David Strathairn briefly pop up in the roles they introduced in 2007’s “Bourne Ultimatum,” and Gilroy cheekily keeps Matt Damon firmly in our minds, with occasional photographs in files passed among key characters.
“The Bourne Legacy” layers slick, suspenseful action atop an intriguing, intelligent and emotionally involving narrative. Previous director Paul Greengrass definitely brought Ludlum’s Bourne series into the 21st century with authoritative snap, and Gilroy has continued the tradition quite honorably.
And as this film’s closing scene quite blatantly teases, we’ve not seen the last of Aaron Cross.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com