‘The Bourne Legacy’: Carrying on

August 9, 2012

Tony Gilroy is the smartest, most intriguing screenwriter since William Goldman was in his heyday.

In a variety of films – including his own “Michael Clayton” and “Duplicity” – Gilroy has demonstrated both a toughness and a cleverness that few contemporary screenwriters possess.

He comes through again with “The Bourne Legacy,” which he wrote and directed and which continues the saga of the first three “Bourne” films (which he also wrote), minus Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne.

In fact, the events in “The Bourne Legacy” are an offshoot of the final film of that trilogy, 2010’s “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Some of it happens concurrently with the events of the previous film, which spark and even drive the action in “Legacy.”

That raises the question of whether you can enjoy “Legacy” without having seen “Ultimatum.” It’s a little like buying a ticket to the last installment of “Lord of the Rings” or the last two “Harry Potter” films without having seen the earlier ones. You’re trying to jump aboard an already fast-moving train.

Not that “Bourne Legacy” is hard to follow – or at least not if you pay attention. That, however, is a lot to ask of the average multiplex movie-goer, who just wants to be entertained, without having to think too much.

But Gilroy’s films require the audience to engage more than just their eyes. You may not need to see “Ultimatum” to appreciate “Legacy,” but it will definitely enhance your understanding – or at least deepen it – if you are familiar with the what is being discussed in the cutaways to moments from the earlier film.

The last film focused on Bourne’s arrival in New York to track down his own history. But he had to battle almost the entire CIA, which was suspicious of his motives (was he trying to expose the covert program that created him?) and did everything it could to thwart him.

“Legacy” starts with the alarms set off by Bourne’s activities. It’s not just the CIA that’s worried; even more secretive national-security groups have even more covert programs in place, involving agents even more deadly (and, as it turns out, chemically enhanced) than Bourne. But Bourne’s actions create a threat of discovery that can’t be tolerated.

So spooks-in-chief Edward Norton and Stacy Keach begin methodically closing those programs down – which means eliminating all participants who have any knowledge of them. Two such figures escape, however: a scientist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) and an operative named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner).

Aaron understands what’s going on – and is concerned that, in being cut off from the regular dose of chemicals that have enhanced his intelligence, he will revert to the person he once was: a guy so dim-witted that his Army recruiter added 20 points to his IQ on his application, just to make a quota. So he enlists Marta to help him find the gene-altering substance that will keep him whole.

That’s the nutshell version; what Gilroy has assembled is both more complex and more exciting. He creates a tense thriller that builds to a series of climaxes, the final one being a motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila during rush hour that rivals the car chase near the end of “Ultimatum” for sheer adrenaline.

He also dots the landscape with the kind of edgy, tough-minded hand-to-hand encounters that were a hallmark of the first three films. And he has a strong cast to carry it along, even when it occasionally slows to catch its breath.

Damon was a fascinating Bourne – at once deadly and conflicted, able to end a life with his bare hands and bounce back from injury. Renner is a different kind of actor, one who lets his anger and emotion work for the character. Damon seemed to explode from an impassive standstill. Renner, by contrast, seems to visibly keep himself in check; he’s always ready for action and seems to choose his spots.

Weisz has toughness and pragmatism as Marta, but, aside from providing exposition and serving as a target, she’s mostly along for the ride. It’s more fun to watch Edward Norton, as the chilly official whose willingness to cut his losses (even if it means sacrificing a number of American lives) makes him a deadly calm villain.

Gilroy utilizes the same handheld urgency that Paul Greengrass brought to the last two films (and Doug Liman gave to the first). Those movies set a standard for the spy thriller, in terms of blending real suspense with sharp intelligence and lean, stripped-down action. It’s a standard that “The Bourne Legacy” strives to match.

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