Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
There’s a flashback scene in the middle of The Bourne Legacy (Dir. Tony Gilroy) which is representative of the theme that drives this fairly acclaimed action thriller franchise. After unintentionally sacrificing innocent lives in battle, Operation Outcome agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner, replacing Matt Damon as the franchise’s poster-boy) confronts his then-Colonel Eric Byer (played with callous verve by Edward Norton) about the mission’s moral deformity. Byer refers to the war operatives as “sin-eaters” who are “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” To persist, they must “bury the moral excrement” in order to “stay clean.” It’s this questioning of governing ruthlessness — individual rebellion against the moral miscalculation of the collective in authority — which provides the structural grammar for the franchise’s focus on action thrills.
More specifically, then, the Bourne films have always generated excitement from the thrill of pursuit couched within a story of somewhat manufactured but still human rogue super agents and government agencies gone awry. Call it an Orwellian cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and James Bond. When that mix is working, it’s made for some great genre moments. As it pertains to moment-to-moment excitement, the latest Bourne film is no exception to the franchise’s rule of white knuckle fun.
Unfortunately, when compared to the initial trilogy, the latest Bourne iteration is not quite as satisfying because it lacks the compelling moral-identity politics which made the action sets engrossing and not merely exciting. In Legacy, the aforementioned scene between Cross and Byer is more of a blip on the radar than a moral quandary that genuinely fills in the film’s emotional core.
Instead, what we get in this film is a relentless focus on green pills and blue pills.
Cross will stop at nothing to get the pills which enhance his physical abilities (green pills) and his mental abilities (blue pills). Initially supplied by his black ops employer, Cross becomes like a drug addict trying to score his performance-enhancing pills called “chems.” His single-minded focus is presumably justified as a necessary means for surviving Byer’s CIA-appointed objective to dispose of all Outcome “assets.” Of course, the requisite female companion is along for the ride. In this case, Rachel Weisz makes the most she can of a limited role as Dr. Marta Shearing. She is the lone survivor among Outcome scientists formerly tasked with working with — no, on — agents like Cross. Shearing is interesting insofar as she was culpably involved in Outcome and then comes to rely on an agent to protect her from the higher ups. Yet, despite momentary challenges from an initially incredulous Cross, all we get from Shearing are some indefensible whimpers that she was in it “for the science alone.” But no worries! Because guess what? She knows where the pills are! It’s a relationship based on the mutual need to survive — the stuff of love.
And so the stage is set for a jaunt to Manila where we can have our chaotic cat-and-mouse chase wherein both parties figure themselves the cat. The good news is that Legacy is in large part still able to deliver crisp chase scenes; the bad news is that Legacy introduces a caricature villain named LARX, who, we’re told, has pill-popping alterations which transform him into a remorseless super-killer.
Come to think of it, LARX embodies what makes the film a bit of a blight on the Bourne legacy. He’s a negligent reference to moral sensibility insofar as he’s devoid of it. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but for a series that delivered so many interesting thrills based on Jason Bourne’s compelling quest to recover and maintain a morally rich personal identity, Aaron Cross’s pursuit of green pills and blue pills feels mostly uninspired — Renner’s and Weisz’s efforts be damned. When the name of the game is merely eluding and surviving Big Brother, the resolution is to go off the grid and get “lost.” But, given the lead-up in this fourth Bourne film, not even Moby can liven up the last shot to resonate as something human.