The Bourne Legacy: Can Late-Blooming Action Star Jeremy Renner Fill Matt Damon's Shoes?

Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 9 2012 10:33 PM

The Bourne Legacy

Can late-blooming action star Jeremy Renner fill Matt Damon's shoes? Plus: A contest to name the next sequel.

"The Bourne Legacy", the next chapter of the espionage franchise.
Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy

Mary Cybulski/Universal Studios.

After you see the movie, click on the player below to listen to Slate's Spoiler Special on The Bourne Legacy:

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

I admit I was probably too excited for The Bourne Legacy. The three previous Bourne films—the first directed by Doug Limon and the second two by Paul Greengrass, all starring Matt Damon as an amnesiac super spy—were a cut above other movies of this type, with imaginatively staged action sequences and a sense of ambient melancholy that was almost European. That je ne sais quoi came in large part from the series’ head writer Tony Gilroy, the sharp-eyed writer/director of Michael Clayton and Duplicity, who, with this new installment, comes on as Bourne director (from a screenplay co-written with his brother Dan).

In addition to Gilroy's presence at the helm, The Bourne Legacy boasted the intriguing casting of Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a new dark-ops agent (he figures nowhere in the Robert Ludlum book series that inspired the trilogy) in place of the now-MIA Jason Bourne. Renner’s an actor I’ve had my eye on since the low-budget indie biopic Dahmer (2002), in which he played the flesh-eating serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer not as a cool Hannibal Lecter archvillain but as an unspeakably damaged, desperately needy young man. Renner didn’t get another really substantial role until 2009, when he gave one of the year’s most powerful performances as an outwardly macho, inwardly empty bomb-defusing specialist in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Iraq-war drama The Hurt Locker. Since then, he’s appeared mainly in frustratingly secondary or even tertiary parts (Ben Affleck’s self-destructive childhood buddy in The Town, a brainwashed master archer in The Avengers.) At 41, Renner is a late-blooming action star, in a way I find pleasing; though he’s built up his compact body to the required degree of gym-bunny buffness, what makes his Aaron Cross a formidable opponent is what seems to be going on in the actor’s head.

Unlike the existentially confused Bourne, Cross is perfectly clear on his original identity, as we learn in a series of temporally disorienting flashbacks. Until he signed up for the ominous-sounding Outcome program in order to become a chemically augmented super-soldier, Cross was Kenneth Kitson, a soldier with an IQ so low, his recruiting officer had to round it up by 12 points to allow him to serve.

After news about the better-spying-through-chemistry Outcome program leaks to the press, the top brass (led by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach, as a pair of testy retired military officers) decide to shut the program down and stealthily pick off all the remaining participants. But Cross—who was off on an isolated training exercise in Alaska when the kill operation kicked in—manages to elude his pursuers just long enough to make it stateside There, he half-rescues, half-kidnaps Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who helped create the meds Cross needs to maintain his mitochondrially enhanced edge and thus stay alive. She needs him to escape the government assassins now hot on their tails, and he needs her to lead him to the stash of remaining meds, which, as it turns out, is located in the Philippines. Hastily yet impeccably forged passport, anyone?

Up until Cross and Shearing land in Manila, Legacy shows signs of being a worthy successor, even a fresh addition, to the previous Bournes. I appreciated that Gilroy went out of his way to write a hero very different from the one Damon played: Where Jason Bourne was emotionally walled off to the point of near-catatonia, Cross is a more open, irreverent type who yearns for a chemically enhanced buddy to talk shop with. Some of the film’s best scenes take place early on, as he joshingly tries to break down the defenses of a fellow Outcome agent. Later, a tense shootout in a government lab makes good use of a sound effect too seldom heard in action movies: silence. And the choice to make Cross’ traveling companion and potential love interest someone who was actively involved with the queasily eugenic science that created him added what could have been a morally complicating twist.

But the movie’s last hour or so squanders these rich narrative possibilities in an incoherently plotted, generically action-packed anticlimax. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the final motorcycle chase, in which a hastily introduced super-assassin character weaves through Manila traffic in seemingly endless pursuit of our hero and heroine, could have taken place in any middling summer action movie, while the closing scene—intended as a tantalizing cliffhanger for the sequel—left the story feeling simply unfinished. Thanks to Renner’s smart, charismatic performance and a couple of elegant action sequences early on, The Bourne Legacy mostly holds its own as a late-summer thrill ride—but only if you’re able to wipe your mind clean of the knowledge that it could have been something more.

***

This year’s Slate Summer Movies contest takes its inspiration from the long tradition of formulaic-yet-awesome Robert Ludlum titles. Most of the spy novels by this bestselling author (and by the Ludlum knockoffs who’ve picked up the series’ baton since the author’s death in 2001) have obeyed the titling formula of definite article + proper name + abstract noun, a word combination that results in titles that sound at once urgently espionage-y and curiously vague: The Aquitaine Progression, The Holcroft Covenant, The Prometheus Deception, The Arctic Event. We know that the next Bourne film, due in 2013 and set to co-star Denzel Washington, will drop the connection to Jason Bourne’s character and return to an original Ludlum title, The Matarese Circle. But I propose you pitch me your own future Ludlum-style movie title, complete with poster tagline. What perils might befall the hero of The Weintraub Involvement? The Ottawa Uncertainty? The Betelgeuse Motivation? Send entries to slatemovies@gmail.com by midnight Eastern Time on Monday, Aug. 13, and I’ll compile some of the best entries for a future column, with an item of Slate-branded swag (there has to be some around here somewhere) for the winner.

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