Friday 15 November 2019

Spy's legacy lives on with slick action

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

film of the week

The bourne legacy (12A, general release, 135 minutes)

Director: Tony Gilroy Stars: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Joan Allen, Edward Norton, Albert Finney

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Spy's legacy lives on with slick action

Can a film really be called a Bourne film if it doesn't have Jason Bourne in it? This is the kind of existential conundrum Universal Studios and series writer Tony Gilroy were faced with when Matt Damon announced that he would not be returning to the franchise after the 2007 instalment, The Bourne Ultimatum.

To make matters worse, neither would Paul Greengrass, whose edgy and powerful direction did so much to distinguish Bournes 2 & 3 from the lacklustre, Gilroy-directed original.

But while another director could -- and has -- been found, the Matt Damon problem was more fundamental. The charismatic actor was so closely identified with Jason Bourne in the public mind that Gilroy and the studio dismissed the notion of having him replaced, Bond-like, by another actor, and instead decided to dispense with the character altogether.

Poor Jason, then, is still missing in action, last seen drifting towards the bottom of an icy East River at the end of Bourne Ultimatum.

Gone but not forgotten, however, because the US military were so spooked by his exposure of the Treadstone assassin school that they decide to 'shut down' all their other illegal black ops programs.

Shutting down is government-speak for executing all participating agents, and that includes one Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a tightly-wound character who's been put through a particularly sinister secret program.

He's in the wilds of Alaska battling extreme cold and predatory wolves as part of his training when he narrowly survives a bomb attack by a government drone.

Realising that someone's out to get him, he removes a tracking probe that's been buried in his abdomen and attaches it to a passing unfortunate wolf, who draws the drone's fire.

And while he makes his way back to civilisation, bad things are happening in Washington.

A US Air Force Colonel called Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is overseeing the elimination of all rogue CIA agents with extreme prejudice, and Aaron Cross is top of his list.

Meanwhile, at a CIA-backed secret laboratory, a biochemist called Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is the only survivor when a fellow employee loses it and starts mowing down everyone in sight.

Shearing worked with Cross's unit and helped develop drugs that enhanced human strength and reflexes by slightly altering chromosomes (or something). Now Cross is addicted to it, and tracks down Shearing to find some more. But assassins have been sent to kill her, and everyone's after him. The Bourne Legacy's slightly convoluted plot also includes a brisk turn from Jet Li as a laconic but devilishly determined hitman, and brief role reprisals from Bourne veterans such as Joan Allen and David Strathairn.

In writing the screenplay, Gilroy has attempted to build his story behind the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum, referring constantly to the events in that film perhaps to encourage the possibility that Bourne himself may suddenly reappear.

He does not, and is sadly missed, though not as much as Greengrass. In fairness, The Bourne Legacy is not that bad, and no worse for instance than The Bourne Identity, which Gilroy also directed.

Renner does not exactly have star quality in spades, as he proved in his supporting turn in Mission Impossible IV, but he's a fine actor, very convincing physically, and well able for the action scenes.

In a way, though, there aren't enough of them. The Greengrass Bourne films raised the bar in terms of fight and chase scenes. Gilroy's approach is more conventional, and in fact there isn't any action to speak of for the best part of 40 minutes.

His fight scenes, when they come, are good enough but seem a step backwards from the visceral Greengrass barnies, and Gilroy overcompensates late on with an extended chase on foot and motorbike that went on for so long it made me feel slightly sick.

Overall, though, you'd have to say that Gilroy and Renner have just about gotten away with it, and created an action film that's at least as good as any others I've seen this summer.

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