Legacy projects are very fashionable with the political classes: George W Bush had his George W Bush Presidential Centre; Tony Blair had his reform of the public sector. Fans of John Morton’s BBC mockumentary Twenty Twelve will remember apparatchiks debating the way Olympic facilities can be used after the Games are over. Perhaps executives at Universal Pictures, pondering this movie project at the script stage, were telling each other that it should be called The Bourne Sustainability or The Bourne Inclusivity.
The fourth movie in the Bourne franchise is Bourne without Bourne, a bit like the TV show Taggart carrying on after the loss of the title character. But Jason Bourne is not dead. He has not “bequeathed” us this situation in that sense: what seems to have died is the actor Matt Damon’s interest in appearing, and so Bourne carries on without his character, making it arguably the purest kind of franchise. Strangely, but quite ingeniously, the action of this film runs alongside that of the third, The Bourne Ultimatum, in which agent Jason Bourne goes rogue after a journalist from this very newspaper, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), is shot dead while working on a sensational story about sinister CIA operations, including experiments in neuro-pharmacology, creating a team of genetically modified super-agents. One of Jason’s fellow covert warriors is Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, who has to go on the run when badass intelligence chief Eric Byer, played by Ed Norton, decrees that the compromised project has to be shut down and every single agent ruthlessly rubbed out. So Cross takes off, gallantly taking with him the beautiful and bewildered government scientist Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has also been earmarked for termination with extreme prejudice.
The Bourne Legacy arrives at an interesting moment. The time was when athletic tough guy Jason Bourne – low-key, trained in hand-to-hand combat, modishly alienated from his superiors – was very contemporary and made poor old James Bond look very silly with his gadgets and martinis. But then TV’s Homeland came along in 2011 with Claire Danes’s brilliant, sympathetic performance as the fragile CIA agent whose psychological instability gives her a vital flash of intuition. Now it was the turn of gym-bunny Bourne to look silly. (And I suspect the scene in The Bourne Legacy where Dr Shearing is visited in her woodland country house is inspired by Homeland.)
As for this movie, it is a bit scrappy and all over the place, and there is a baffling plot-hole, or plot-eccentricity, concerning the nature of Cross’s final confrontation. But it has plenty of energy and drive, and Jeremy Renner is really good, better as a Bourne-y agent than Matt Damon, tougher and more grizzled-looking, more convincing as the professional soldier who has grown careworn and disillusioned in the public service. I can imagine Renner going rogue, but I often had a tough job imagining smooth-faced Damon going rogue from the cub scouts.
For all that this is a structurally garbled footnote to the Bourne series, it has some good ideas – as good or better than that which came before, and I found myself wishing that the Bourne series couldn’t have been started with Renner, or rebooted with Renner. It is entertaining when Cross, surrounded by wolves in the Alaskan wilderness, finds an elegant way of repositioning the tracking device that is allowing government assassins to find him. Writer-director Tony Gilroy interestingly conveys thesimple idea of Cross being a drug addict, terrified of going cold turkey. It is not simply that the US government wants to kill him; he needs to keep taking the mysterious pills, the “chems”, to continue at the Nietzschean level of super-fitness to which he has grown accustomed. But with the programme closed and the pills cut off, Cross faces physical agony and a return to the low-IQ purgatory.
Now we come to the vital question that all Bourne fans will be asking about this film: is there a parkour rooftop chase? The answer is yes, of course, because the PRC is as integral to Bourne as Aston Martins are to Bond. It would not be Bourne without a bit of rooftop parkour across rickety tin buildings somewhere in the developing world, and this Bourne stays loyal to this particular legacy.
Well, the time has certainly come to call a halt to the Bourne franchise, but despite its muddled origins, this fourth movie is much more of a bang and less of a whimper than any of us feared, and Jeremy Renner is emerging as the intelligent person’s action star.
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