Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Dennis Boutsikaris, Oscar Isaac, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Written by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy

By Matt Neufeld
August 10, 2012

Although a strong argument could be made that the third film in the hugely-successful “Bourne” series of films during the past 10 years could have been left undone, and a stronger second film, with more of a comprehensive script, could have easily wrapped up the original story, the first three films were nevertheless riveting, suspenseful, entertaining thrill-ride summer popcorn movies that delivered a tense, gritty, realistic and enjoyable modern-day spy tale for the post-9/11 world of intelligence, defense, genetic engineering and high technology.

Yes, “The Bourne Identity” (2002), directed by Doug Liman, and still the best in the series, by far; “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), directed by Paul Greengrass; and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), also directed by Greengrass, were entertaining, fun and enjoyable, as noted. But the films, all co-written by Tony Gilroy, did–it must be admitted–tend to have a sense of repetition, sameness, and familiar territory that started to wear thin somewhere about the middle of the third film.

The feeling started to settle in that the complicated, convoluted, layered story of intrigue, deception, cat-and-mouse chases and cloak-and-dagger, and somewhat evil and misguided, clandestine operations needed to be wrapped up, with the payoff allowance of just letting poor, mistreated and abused Jason Bourne get on with his life without this constant series of almost-psychotic chases. And, the viewer needed to see the suits who created these operations get their due and be rightfully punished.

And that’s what indeed seemed to happen at the end of “Ultimatum”—Bourne, alive, his story made public, escapes safely into the night, having won a major victory over his insane overseers at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department, and those same
managers and directors facing probable indictments, charges, arrests and firings due to their crazy, top-secret programs that attempted–wrongly, horribly and abusively–to create some wayward army of super-programmed soldiers, agents and operatives, boosted by some type of sci-fi-leaning mixture of brainwashing, genetic engineering, and medical and physical engineering. And that’s where the original trilogy ended–with the story nicely wrapped up, the hero alive and vindicated, and the villians defeated. And the end credits of “Ultimatum’ rolled to one of the best end-credit movie songs in years, Moby’s stirring “Extreme Ways.”

But never underestimate the power–or lack of power, really–of greedy studio suits, as we should have learned when someone actually agreed to additional “Smokey and the Bandit” films back in the 1970s. When original trilogy star Matt Damon, who played central character Jason Bourne so memorably in those first three films, and Greengrass declined to participate in a fourth Bourne film in 2010, that didn’t deter the studio suits, Ludlum estate overseers and the Gilroys. They all met, according to an interview Gilroy gave to CNN this week, to discuss how to expand and continue the Bourne story–and how to make that story into a fourth film that kept the Bourne-vibe going.

The result is “The Bourne Legacy,” which is scheduled to be released today, August 10, 2012, directed this time by Tony Gilroy, once again co-written by Gilroy, and with much of the production crew and supporting cast back yet again from the first three films in the series. Interestingly, although “Legacy” works as a diverting, somewhat-entertaining popcorn movie again, just slightly inching above the average–bolstered mainly by periodic realistic action sequences, stunts, chases, the patented up-close fist-fights and another beautiful leading girl–that inescapable sense of sameness and familiarity now is not just slightly suggested, but is loudly present, and that sense just full-blown dominates the film. Although Gilroy and crew tried their best to expand the story, introduce new characters, set the film in new locations and move things forward–and you have to give them credit for trying–“Legacy” ends up wallowing in that sameness because the film, and the story, simply cannot escape one fact: At its most simplistic core, the film centers yet again on a rogue agent gone awol who is on the run, trying to figure out what has been done to him, trying to figure out how he can save himself and how he can stay alive, while CIA and Defense suits maniacally struggle to hunt him down and kill him so they can save their corrupt, lying, deceiving and illegal rear ends from getting snagged in their sorry webs of illicit deception. Sound familar? Of course–all four films have this same basic story. It’s very familiar.

Alas, although they are in some ways the cornerstone of the films and have been praised for their tight, tense, gritty realism, even the action sequences this go-around tend to lean toward the familiar. Just how many of these bizarrely up-close fist fights–with arms and hands and fingers flying so fast, no one has a chance of coming out alive against Bourne or his successor–can the second-unit action director put in these films? And how many up-close crashing, clashing, bashing, banging and scraping car and motorcycle chase sequences can the car and motorcycle stunt drivers be put through? It’s all here in “Legacy” and it’s all directed, choreographed and staged excellently–you have to give credit to action sequence and second unit director Dan Bradley and his extensive crew of stuntmen and stunt drivers—but you just can’t continue to base and center your film series solely on these sequences. Yes, of course, the James Bond series has done this literally for 50 years now–but, as everyone knows by now, Bourne is not Bond, and Bond is not Bourne, and never shall the two meet. The two series are entirely, completely different, and there simply is no comparison. They are apples and oranges. There–enough said on that point.

What the Bourne series needed in films three and four was a new story, taking Bourne and his successor into other areas of espionage. Bourne and his fellow agents needed to be brought out from under the rogue-operative story and given a real espionage mission in the modern world–finding and fighting modern-day terrorists and hackers and drug cartels and other types of villians, using their newfangled, modern-era skills. That’s where three and four should have gone. But, film after film, it’s agents being chased by suits, agents being chased by suits–all so the suits won’t get caught executing their Draconian little operations.

In “Legacy,” which is not a “reboot,” which some wayward medialand souls have incorrectly termed the film, and is not a prequel–also incorrectly noted in some articles–there is no Jason Bourne. That gives nothing away. The story focuses on rogue agent Aaron Cross, who was one of six operatives in a program called Outcome which is designed to create the aforementioned super-agents through a combination of behavioral science, medical engineering, brainwashing and physical modifications. The agents are to be used by the Defense Department. Outcome is similar to the program that Jason Bourne was part of, Treadstone. Jason Bourne spent the first three films figuring out what Treadstone was, what was done to him, who was responsible, how he could crack the operation open and expose it for all its insanity, and how he could stay alive while doing all of this. You did feel for Jason Bourne, you did root for him, and you were interested in how he would accomplish all of this–and stay alive. Again, the films made for suspenseful entertainment. But while Cross, played by a somewhat less robotic and somewhat more down-to-earth Jeremy Renner in “Legacy,” is also sympathetic, and while you do root for him, the viewer cannot escape the nagging feeling that, once again, we’ve been through this before, and it’s still the same old story.

Renner does portray Cross in a more humanistic, more personable manner, and he does succeed in eliciting sympathy for his character. Cross is again fighting an intense battle. While he struggles to stay alive while various assassins are dispatched to kill him, he also must figure out what has happened to him, who can help him–and how he can de-activate and defuse a virus that has been implanted in him. Cross, using his enhanced survival skills and street smarts that he has gained through intensive training, weaves through a dense forest of secretive programs being overseen by a perfectly annoying and irritating character–intended to be annoying and irritating–played with appropriate snarly nastiness by Edward Norton. Norton’s Eric Byer, a retired Colonel, is now running Outcome, and trying to cover-up Treadstone, aided by equally snarly and equally irritating retired admiral Mark Turso, played with the same mix of criminal, corrupt smugness, guilt, arrogance and psychotic twisted morality ably turned in by Albert Finney in the earlier films. Norton and Keach play their power-corrupted weaselly villians so well, you spend much of the movie wondering if they will get there comeuppance in the third act. Whether that occurs or not will not be revealed here, but rooting against Norton’s and Keach’s characters does add to the enjoyment of the film.

As any good spy must do, Cross is aided by the regally beautiful Rachel Weisz, who plays Marta Shearing, a medical doctor who may have advanced degrees and may be working on some of the most cutting-edge medical, genetic and physical research in the world, but the good doctor is also clueless when it comes to the deeper moral and ethical implications of the research she is conducting for the CIA and Defense. Her ignorance on this end is partly due to the clandestine nature of the research itself, which keeps workers in the dark about what they are actually working on, and is also partly due to her somewhat rose-colored-glasses deference to the ethical end of what she is doing. When Shearing ultimately realizes that what she has been doing is wrong, and she abandons her comfy, protected (literally) and upscale high-level-clearance bubble-world life and existence, then we see some additional character development and story arch that helps propel the story beyond action sequences. We already know Cross knows the difference between right and wrong, and we know Cross understands he cannot trust anyone overseeing Outcome or Treadsone–except possibly Joan Allen’s Pam Landy–but watching Weisz’s Shearing shift moral gears and become a fellow rogue operative on the run also helps the film. Weisz, much like Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” this summer, turns in a believable transformation, from shady and secretive bad to working for the good. In Shearing’s case, it’s a transformation from agreeable government wonk to hunted-down rogue scientist. Watching her watch Cross’s world with equal parts horror, terror, amazement and bemusement is fun, and Weisz, with her natural presence and beauty, makes it believable and enjoyable.

Interestingly, and it can’t go un-mentioned, Weisz just happens to be married, in real life, to—Daniel Craig, the current James Bond. The deeper implications of this odd mixture and clash of life and art are best left to an academic psychology paper.

Cross enlists the aid of Shearing because Shearing knows the details of what occurred to Cross and the other Outcome agents, and she knows how to help him. While Cross tries to figure out his dilemma, and while he enlists Shearing to help him, both are hunted down by assassins dispatched to kill them both–and the other Outcome agents–by Byer and Turso. They engage in a shifty, clever cat-and-mouse game with Byer and Turso and their computer-addled minions in dark CIA and Defense offices. Glenn’s CIA Director, Strathairn’s director of Blackbriar, yet another moronic secretive intelligence program, Allen’s Landy and even Finney’s Treadstone medical director. all make appearances–but these near-cameos are really footnotes here. It actually would have been better to have used Landy’s character more. But, worse, and a detriment to the film that tends to bring the entire film down a notch or two, the film and the story seem to backtrack from the more positive ending of “Ultimatum,” and not in a successful way. The film almost seems to want to stretch out farther the ending of “Ultimatum,” but certainly not in a satisfactory or successful manner. There’s too much stretching, too much backtracking, and too much piling on in the film’s third act, and that eventually brings down the film.

It’s not a stretch, though, to suggest that things would have been just fine had “The Bourne Legacy” not been made. It perhaps would have been just fine to let things be, and let the original trilogy stand on its own, at the moment when Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass–wisely–opted out of a fourth film two years ago. It would have been just fine for everyone to have let the trilogy stand.

But sequelitis is a nasty, pervasive disease in Hollywoodland, filmland, theaterland and televisionland. And it’s a disease that is continually killing the entertainment industry. In the end, we don’t need all of theses sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, reimaginings, reinventions, rebirths, returns, re-adaptaions, and revisitings. They are just, for the most part, unneeded, unwanted and unnecessary. And, for the most part, they don’t add up to quality films, and they end up diluting and bringing down the better, original films in the respective series.

In the over-extended “Bourne” world, no matter the box office results, the creative stream survived by a thin margin by the end of the third film, but at this point, at the end of the fourth, you tend to realize that it’s perhaps time to put this story to rest. There’s so little orginality left at the end of “Legacy,” guess what same song plays over “Legacy’s” end credits? That’s right–Moby’s “Extreme Ways.” The same song. Again.

Sooner, and not later, moviegoers will start signaling strongly that these extreme ways with sequels and remakes have jumped the shark, and, new characters and new actors or not, filmgoers will tell these greedy studio suits that it’s time to move forward, that it’s time to move on to new stories, new characters, new plots—-and new end-credit songs.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.