What to do when your top man does dark? In the world of the popular franchise, as in the field of counter intelligence, you activate another asset. When Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass decided to abscond, Universal had a situation. Writer Tony Gilroy, who turns director with this new venture, was charged with doing a Blake Edwards: that is, continuing the series without its iconic leading man, despite audience suspicion that this was a terrible idea. There simply wasn’t enough unused footage from previous entries to cobble together a whole film, which meant that a Trial of the Pink Panther style atrocity was out. Matt Damon’s lawyers were heartbroken.
So what to do? Well, Gilroy, unable to move forward has plotted sideways: a tangential play involving a fresh, and altogether more complicated backstory, overlapping the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. The gamble? A new lead character. Enter Jeremy Renner: unlike Damon, his Aaron Cross, CIA liability and super-solider with a drug problem, manages to raise a smile, though few from an audience afflicted by frustration and déjà vu.
The Bourne Legacy’s problems begin immediately, not with Renner, who’s fine, if a little uninspired as a leading man, but in Gilroy’s attempt at laying out his new plot. Precious goodwill capital is expended as the writer/director ties himself in knots, attempting to bolt the new story onto the old. Consequently the first 20 minutes are uneven, lacking the tight plotting that characterised the first three movies. By the time Renner’s run beds down and gets its head straight, with Ed Norton’s section chief banging the table, a now familiar series archetype, the initial loss of focus has lead to a malaise that Gilroy doesn’t work hard enough to reverse.
As you might expect with a Bourne movie, particularly one with few fresh ideas, Cross is soon being hunted down by his old sponsors. As in The Bourne Identity, where Damon picked up a female companion to sex up the chase and give the lead someone to protect, Renner’s debutant collects his programme doctor, Rachel Weisz, the woman responsible for filling his pillbox, but this familiar dynamic provokes unfavourable comparisons to the parent pictures.
What we miss, in light of the razor slash editing and kinetic camerawork that became the series’ signature style once Greengrass had taken over, is the edge he brought to those sequels. Gilroy’s staging is flat by comparison, the cutting less cutting. When the action does come, infrequently, as this isn’t as well paced as previous entries, the movie shifts up a gear, but the climatic chase, though exhilarating, lacks the spark, indeed sense of danger, that marked the best of Damon’s setpieces. For the first time since Doug Liman’s Identity, we can follow the line of action without getting a headache, but any mystery in this new story is comprehensively solved early on, leaving a chase movie in which the runners aren’t challenged nearly enough. In short, now we can see it, there’s very little to see.