Trying to assess “The Bourne Legacy” as I would any other movie is difficult, and it’s because of the film’s unfortunate timing.
About 45 minutes into the movie, a man armed with a 9-millimiter semiautomatic handgun walks into a medical lab and dispassionately starts shooting his co-workers. As the victims scramble under desks and duck into supply closets to escape the gunman, you can’t help but think that the recent scene inside the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., looked something like this. And of course, that leads to thinking about the “Dark Knight Rises” shootings in Colorado.
CAN'T SEE VIDEO? Watch here
So for one long, dreadful sequence “The Bourne Legacy” ceases to be a movie and becomes a reminder of real-life horror. Director Tony Gilroy does his job too well, showing the fear and anguish in the faces of the innocents before death comes to them. The depiction was too real. I didn’t want to watch it. For one of the few times in my career, I almost walked out of a movie.
I remained because I knew Gilroy wasn’t intentionally exploiting a recent tragedy, that the movie’s only fault is the awful coincidence of its release date. If “Legacy” had opened a month earlier, the scene would have been maybe a bit more wrenching than usual for a PG-13 action movie – and still longer than necessary – but would have been otherwise unremarkable.
Even if Gilroy intends no ill will, Universal still should have realized it had a potential breach of good taste in its hands and delayed the film’s release to allow time to blunt the similarities to the temple shootings. Then again, the studio might have wound up with a release date that fell within a week of a genuine workplace killing spree.
Whatever the case, this scene is a cancerous tumor within the film, and it takes “Legacy” to a much darker place than anyone intended.
There’s an old joke that goes, “Apart from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” So how was the movie? “Legacy” is a decent spy thriller, especially if you’ve always wanted one with a heavy dose of medical research terminology. It’s also crafted with just enough expertise that you can’t shrug it off for what it really is, a studio’s desperate attempt to extend a franchise beyond its natural life expectancy.
As most everyone knows by now, “Legacy” is a Bourne-free Jason Bourne movie, sort of like a James Bond movie that stars 006. Matt Damon played Jason Bourne in a dynamite action trilogy but declined to return (good for him, and I hope he maintains that resolve). Damon’s presence haunts this film. Jason Bourne is often mentioned by never appears, not even in a bonus scene after the credits (I sat through them so you don’t have to).
Jeremy Renner, starring in a franchise movie this time instead of playing a supporting role as he did for “Mission: Impossible” and “The Avengers,” is introduced as Aaron Cross, recruited by Outcome, the third or fourth generation of Treadstone, the assassin training program that produced Bourne.
These operatives are like Terminators, the government keeps pumping out better, deadlier models. What distinguishes Outcome operatives from their predecessors is that they take a regimen of drugs to enhance their physical abilities and mental skills. So Cross isn’t just Bourne 2. He’s Super Bourne.
“Legacy” is more of a spinoff than a sequel. Its events, at least during the first half, take place concurrently with Damon’s third film, “The Bourne Ultimatum.” The assassination of the British reporter in Waterloo Station at the beginning of that story triggers the events in this one.
Outcome is run by a high-level, ultra shadowy military outfit called the National Research Assay Group, run by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach. These guys are so secret that the spymasters from the earlier films (Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Albert Finney put in brief appearances) don’t know of their existence.
Now that word of Bourne and Treadstone has leaked into the press, Norton and Keach do not want the world to learn that Outcome is even worse. They decide to mothball the program and order the termination of all its operatives, as well as the medical research staff that tends to them (this explains the workplace massacre). On a training exercise in Alaska, Cross survives the first wave of executions and escapes when his bosses send in a drone to kill him.
Cross may be alive, but his supply of drugs has been cut off. Like a junkie needing a fix, he goes after Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) the sole medical researcher to survive the lab shootings. He rescues her from another sinister attempt on her life, then begs her to get him more “chems.” The only way to do that, she says, is to sneak into the processing plant in the Philippines, thus fulfilling this series’ globe-trotting quota.
When Cross was recruited to the program, his intelligence was far below average. He fears that missing several doses of his brain pill will turn him into a moron again. So “Legacy” becomes “Flowers for Algernon” meets, well, “The Bourne Identity.”
After having a hand in the scripts for the three previous films, Gilroy has been promoted to director (he co-wrote this script with his brother Dan Gilroy). Gilroy has a gift for intelligent dialogue, but not concision. “Legacy” runs two hours and 15 minutes, much longer than the earlier films, which were all shorter than two hours.
Much of that extra running time is devoted to Dr. Shearing explaining the chemical changes inside Cross’ body in terms geneticists in the audience may understand, but no one else will. She also delivers one of the most hilariously self-serving whines ever uttered by a movie scientist: “I’ve made huge sacrifices for my country! I can’t publish!”
The first two Bourne movies revolutionized action films, but Gilroy doesn’t have the facility for action that Doug Limon and Paul Greengrass brought to the earlier films. There’s not that much of it, and Gilroy overcompensates at the end with an extended foot chase through Manila that turns into an extended motorcycle chase. The stunts are impressive, but the presentation is flaccid and what could have been exciting runs longer than it should, a flaw in all of Gilroy’s movies, including “Michael Clayton.”
Although his character isn’t as intriguing or as sympathetic as Damon’s, Renner is a magnetic performer and we like him enough to care about his story, which isn’t as strong as any of Damon’s but Jason Bourne set an awfully high standard.
If I had seen “The Bourne Legacy” a year ago or a year from now, I might have liked it more. Because it was released on this particular weekend, it inadvertently presents a scene that is excruciating to watch. It’s not a reason to condemn the film, but you should know it is coming.
“The Bourne Legacy”
2 1/2 stars
Rated PG-13 for violence and action sequences
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Who’s in it: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach
What’s it about: As Jason Bourne’s identity leaks to the press, the spymasters of a program to produce drug-enhanced government assassins panic and order the terminations of their operatives. One agent (Renner) survives, but with his drug supply cut off, he turns to medical researcher Weisz for help. She, too, is marked for death.
Verdict: This spinoff of the Jason Bourne trilogy doesn’t match the thrills of Matt Damon’s films, but director Tony Gilroy (who contributed to the scripts of the earlier movies) crafts it with enough expertise that it doesn’t come off as a studio’s desperate attempt to keep a franchise going past its natural lifespan. The action isn’t as plentiful, and dialogue gets bogged down in medical research terminology as well as the usual espionage gobbledygook. Likable Renner allows us to care for a character more morally shady than Bourne. The film is marred by an awful coincidence, a shooting scene that recalls the recent Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin.