The Bourne Legacy: Spy vs. Drones — Which Is Which?

Jeremy Renner is Matt Damon's summer replacement in the intelligent but unnecessary fourth installment of thrillers from the Robert Ludlum franchise

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Universal Pictures

“The Bourne Redundancy.” That’s what Paul Greengrass, who had directed the last two Jason Bourne movies, proposed as the title of any future installment. When there’ve been three movies about the spy with an identity crisis, and the third episode was called Ultimatum, why go on? But for the brass at Universal Pictures, the question was: Why stop now? Worldwide box-office revenue for movies made from the Robert Ludlum novels had ballooned from $214 million for the 2002 Identity to $288.5 million for the 2004 Supremacy to $442.8 million for the 2007 Ultimatum. That’s close to a billion dollars for three movies. Any studio boss would want to go for four.

So though Greengrass passed on another Bourne, and star Matt Damon also said no, Tony Gilroy, who’d co-scripted the first three films, signed on as director, co-writer and keeper of the franchise. The Bourne Legacy, with The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner as the new hero, has a couple of scenes crackling with fatal friction, plus lots of talking that implicates the CIA as Worst Government Agency Ever; but the overall tone is familiar, refried, redundant. The comment that U.S. Intelligence guru Edward Norton makes of his colleagues — “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary” — applies to the film as well. The Bourne Legacy has no compelling reason to be, except as a continuing geyser of profits. Which, to any Hollywood studio, is absolutely necessary.

(MORE: Tony Gilroy tells Stephanie Abrahams why a new Bourne is necessary)

The coolest part of this movie is the ad line: “There was never just one.” Renner’s Aaron Cross is part of a new CIA program. He’s one of nine secret agents, all injected with super-meds to increase their strength, speed, stamina and cunning. They’re spies on steroids, gaining the same advantage on their rivals as some baseball players a decade ago; the film could be called The Bonds Legacy. It’s a wonder the producers of the James Bond films didn’t diversify their hero this way. After 007, there could have been 008 and 009 — The Bond Legacy. But the whole point of the Bond films was that, despite the myriad spy-movie imitators, there was always just one Bond. These days, through the miracle of 21st-century medicine and Hollywood habit, a secret agent can be Bourne again and again and again.

In the screenplay by Gilroy and his brother Dan, we find Cross in the Alaskan woods, a lone surviver in the killing chill. In his spare time he engages in an ultimate fight with a ferocious wolf, as if trying to out-macho Liam Neeson in The Grey. A spy who is literally ready to come in from the cold — to be brought back to D.C. by the agency he works for — Cross finds himself the target of a U.S. drone attack. Wait a minute: the guys in Bethesda at their video consoles are supposed to eliminate the odd Taliban rebel and Afghani civilian, not their most resourceful agent. In these scenes, Legacy connects with the real crime of modern warfare, where the shooters at Mission Control can isolate a human target 10,000 miles away, and kill him without risking anything but their honor.

(MORE: Corliss’s review of The Bourne Ultimatum)

But enough brain food. Soon it’s back to fulfilling genre conventions: rooftop rambles, reckless driving and the globe-trotting location shoots (New York, Chicago, D.C., Seoul, Karachi, Manila) that turn filmmakers into frequent flyers. Also imperiled romance, in the person of microbiologist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). The good doctor works at the company that hatched Cross’s enabling, deadly medication, though, she wanly protests, “I was there for science!” As his one link to the meds, Marta must run from the CIA — there’s a nicely tense interrogation with a motherly psychologist who explodes into a lethal agent — and get Cross to the manufacturing plant in Manila. Toward the end, Legacy promises a battle between Cross and a next-generation killer, a sort of Terminator Bourne; but that climactic brawl is reduced to the sort of car chase you’ve seen before, and better, in roughly 126 action films.

Most moviegoers won’t mind that the Legacy tropes are familiar; that’s why they go to the movies. What they’ll notice is the new leading man in the wake of Damon’s defection. Renner is a curious candidate for a Hollywood action figure. Not a dreamy hunk by any means, he’s a valued supporting player recently promoted to leading roles. Go back 40 years, and he’s Gene Hackman, with muscles (every actor has muscles now) but with the suggestion of a less roiling interior life. That was exactly Renner’s salient quality in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Dismantling bombs in Baghdad, his Sgt. James was all business, no introspection; he was what he did. Sure, James could have been driven by infernal forces or a grand mission, but no, he was just a guy supremely good at his job and putting his expertise to life-saving use.

(MORE: Corliss on Renner in The Hurt Locker)

Renner’s anonymity worked splendidly in The Hurt Locker. Since then, in standard-issue action fare like The Avengers and the fourth Mission: Impossible, he has looked uncomfortable, trying to Act when the other performers, more used to the camera’s rapt gaze, know how to simulate having a good time.

Now, a star without star quality, Renner plays it a little too nice as the junked-up renegade spy. The Cross character has no backstory to clue the viewer to deep roilings, and Renner can suggest sullenness but not satanic or superhuman threat. If Sgt. James was a man who defused, and fused with, machines, Cross is more machine than man, a total creation of his CIA overlords — their quiet-spoken Frankenstein. Or you could say Cross is a drone in human form, efficient but impersonal, like this redundant Legacy.