The Bourne Identity opened with a body suspended in the Mediterranean, motionlessly afloat, like an embryo in amniotic brine. The hallucinatory image, it turned out, was eerily appropriate. The body, we discovered, belonged to a man who’d lost his memory – put differently, he found himself birthed anew, with a newborn’s blank slate. And over the course of three movies, he grew up and gradually filled in the pieces. It may be no accident that the last film, The Bourne Ultimatum (even that title sounds so final), closed with this very image, of Jason Bourne adrift in water, as if he were returned to the womb. The cycle was complete. Like a creature from a myth, he rose from the sea, attended to his earthly calling, and returned to the sea. There’s a reason these stories are called archetypal. They’ve existed for centuries, and they’ve have been told over and over. And now, in The Bourne Legacy, the director Tony Gilroy (who co-wrote the Bourne trilogy) wants to draw from this template again. Nothing wrong with that.
Except, he literally tells the same story. (And unlike the Bond series, whose identical stories we’re just meant to snicker through, these films are freighted with existential gravity; we have to take them seriously). Save for a few minor tweaks, we could be watching the older films all over again, right from the opening image of – yes – a motionless body suspended in water. This time, the man on the run is named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), and the harried innocent who keeps him company is Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). David Strathairn’s role of a ruthless establishment overlord is taken up by Edward Norton (in what has got to be the most thankless part of his career, requiring little more than barking urgent instructions to a bank of computer screens). And there’s the requisite action sequence unfolding in a grungily exotic locale (Manila, if you must know), where a bike is hot-wired, a police car stolen, and several rooftops clambered over – it’s hard to say if these are knowing winks to the first three Bourne movies or the cynical calculations of a filmmaker under pressure to deliver a global blockbuster.
Gilroy moves the story along well enough, and the stunts, even if familiar, are engaging. But Renner is a few sizes too small for these shoes. He has no dash, no sizzle. As an alternative, I propose Clive Owen, who, in The Bourne Identity, was the secret agent out to kill Jason Bourne. (He ended up killed instead.) We already learnt, there, what this film proffers as its big reveal, that there are multiple operatives on the loose, each one programmed in near-inhuman ways by the government. Instead of situating this story in the timeframe of the events of the third film, right about when the Guardian reporter doing an exposé on Bourne is killed in Waterloo station, Gilroy could have set it before the happenings in the first film – and with Owen, we would have hopped on to a vehicle driven by a star with presence, instead of a good actor with all the magnetism of a block of butter. (Did anyone buy him as that superhero with a quiverful of arrows in The Avengers?)
The other hurdle is Gilroy’s good taste, his refusal to resort to pulse-quickening melodrama. This high-mindedness was an asset in Michael Clayton – there was another story that had been told over and over, and yet, Gilroy’s hushed shepherding of the narrative suffused it with a revelatory charge. At times in The Bourne Legacy, this restraint is useful, as in the scene where Aaron Cross lies in bed, in a safe house of sorts, and sees the name of Jason Bourne carved out in the wood. It’s tacit acknowledgement that other unfortunates before him have trodden this path. But most of the time, we are led to believe that the material would have been better served by a hack with nimble instincts. In the film’s most chilling scene, a heretofore self-effacing character goes postal (he’s been programmed as well) – he becomes a Stepford zombie right out of a pulp-paranoia thriller, and we feel a frisson. Had this tone spilled over to the rest of the film, Gilroy could have reinvented the Bourne franchise, rebirthed it with a blank slate. Instead, he’s made a movie gambling on an audience’s amnesia.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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