'Bourne Legacy': Alive and Kicking
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Master CIA assassin, dirty-ops and cover-ups exposer and wannabe peacenik Jason Bourne may have -- spoiler alert! -- jumped into the East River at the end of that movie about his ultimatum (which was not, as it happens, "Knock it off with the dirty ops or I'll jump into the East River!"). But, as we learn in "The Bourne Legacy," his enhanced, bred-to-be-conscience-free brethren live on. Although not for very much longer, if Edward Norton has anything to do with it.
The new movie in the "Bourne" franchise is co-scripted and now directed by Tony Gilroy (who did the adaptations of the three Robert Ludlum novels that were adapted for the three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne). It is, like the other films Gilroy's directed (the legal thriller "Michael Clayton" and the corporate espionage lark "Duplicity") a very tricky mechanism. Gilroy's idea of fun is to throw the viewer into the middle of his story's bizarre, unusual circumstances and let them wallow in the simultaneous exhilaration and frustration of not having a handle on things.
He begins on an extra-tricky note, reprising the final shot of the last Bourne movie but replacing the character in that shot. Our man underwater is now agent Aaron Cross, played with trademark intensity by Jeremy Renner, and he's so tough that he's going swimming ... in Alaska. In the middle of winter. He's training, and part of his regimen involves a green pill and a blue pill. We soon learn that this routine is happening contemporaneously with the events of "Ultimatum," from the reporter's assassination to Jason Bourne's infiltration of a CIA office in New York.
Here we are given a deep backstage perspective on the events, and introduced to the puppet masters of the puppet masters: a couple of military types played by the aforementioned Norton and Stacy Keach, who conclude that the breach represented by Bourne is severe enough they need to burn down their programs to breed super-agents. And by burn down they mean kill everyone involved in the program, from the agents to the doctors treating them. Everyone except the evil bastards who thought the programs up.
"We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary," Norton's character protests to Renner's soulfully guilt-ridden ultimate soldier in a flashback. Later, as Cross fights for his life by rescuing a beautiful (of course) female (of course) doctor who escaped a massacre of her team (set up by the Norton/Keach overlords, natch), played by Rachel Weisz, he presses her for answers, and she stammers, "I do research! I design! I survey! I don't do policy!" Gilroy is pretty studious, but never strident, in larding his scenarios with unsettling "are my hands clean" elements, and for this film he weaves them into a breathless scenario that also pays homage to what I imagine must be some of his favorite '60s and '70s films: It will again be a spoiler for readers of a certain age for me to point out (and this is it, so skip this next bit if you want to remain innocent!) that an alternate title for this film could have been "Three Days of Charly."
Unfortunately, things go a little wobbly in the last quarter with the introduction of another super assassin/secret weapon whom you're primed to believe is really bad news when his enthusiastic handler says that his conditioning is such that his empathy is all but non-existent. And then the guy, played by Louis Ozawa Changchien shows up, and you're all like, "ooh, look at him, he's all unempathetic."
Then things devolve into a rather unsatisfying chaos-cinema chase scene. But this bit is sure to be a crowd pleaser, and for the rest of us, there are excellent performances and a few really first-rate suspense-set pieces, including an interrogation of Weisz's character by an initially sympathetic "psychologist" played by the masterly Elizabeth Marvel that's practically Hitchcockian in its cat-and-mouse maneuverings. As reboots go, this is one Bourne-again experience you can (mostly) believe in. Sorry about that, by the way.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.