Thursday 16 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy

A Franchise Re-Bourne

The Bourne Legacy 2012 USA 
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: You will inherit a legacy 
of spoilers if you read this review.

You know, I really loved that first remake they did of The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon ten years ago. I’d not seen the 1988 Richard Chamberlain version (don’t worry, finally got my “cute derriere” in gear and put it on order after I typed those words... a review will be forthcoming) so I went into the cinema back in 2002 expecting... well... nothing much. I was so pleased and amazed by the quality of that first film. Everything was done perfectly and I loved the fact that Franke Potente was in it and being given a halfway decent role. It didn’t hurt that Ludlum was involved with the production on that one and Doug Liman’s assured direction combined with some powerhouse performances from some very strong actors, glossed over with some very well put together action sequences, meant I saw it multiple times at the cinema and was literally counting the days until the DVD release.

Sometime before the sequel, I read the first two of Robert Ludlum’s original trilogy of novels, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, and saw that they’d deviated quite a bit from the tone and some of the story elements of that original novel in the first movie, but that there were still strong links and similarities to the novel to not get too upset about it. Alas, all that went out of the window with the second movie which went off and did its own thing, suffering the same “buy the title and write something completely different” fate that the later Bond movies did. It’s a shame because the original plot of the novel where Bourne and his very able wife, working with the government to flush out Carlos the Jackal, makes for quite an interesting story. Instead, for the movie bearing that title, the writers and producers decided to kill off Bourne’s wife/girlfriend in the first ten minutes or so and just turn it into a revenge frame up story.

I wouldn’t have minded so much, maybe, if the film had been as addictive as the first one but Paul Greengrass’ direction was a little less than I’d been hoping for on this one and I also found the way the action sequences were edited very hard to follow. It was only Bourne’s confession to the daughter of two people he’d killed for the government at the end of the movie and then the little “whoop” of the end of his conversation with Ann Archer’s character, right at the end, that lifted it above the run-of-the mill action thriller.

The third movie, I suspect, is even more messed up in terms of faithfulness of adaptation because, as I understand it, the novel follows a continuation of the Carlos The Jackal storyline. This is jettisoned in favour of a movie which takes place, for the majority of its running time, sandwiched in between two shots from the end of the last movie, a little like Paranormal Activity 2, which manages to pull off the same trick. The story is intelligible enough, given life more than adequately by actors who could imbue the reading of the back of a cornflake packet with an almost unbearable sense of gravitas, but again the action is confusing and John Powell’s score just seems a little too subtle on that third outing... but the first two scores were such modern masterpieces, perhaps he found it too hard, or frankly, too boring, to pen something more like the first two. There is certainly a progression of thematic material here but it just doesn’t hit the right notes, if you’ll pardon the pun, for me to give it regular spins like I do the first two scores.

With Greengrass and Damon bowing out, the producers still wanted some more of the Bourne cash coming into their coffers, so this time around the story, such as it is, focuses on another agent in the field, Aaron Cross, played by up and coming actor Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye in Thor and The Avengers). There’s a lot of sleight of hand going on around this movie to tie it into the original trilogy of movies by setting it at the same time as the last one and editing in shots and sequences from the previous movie to make things feel like you’re watching a bona fide Bourne movie, when in actual fact you are watching what could easily have been a non-franchise action movie.

Even the score by M. Night Shyamalan’s composer of choice, James Newton Howard, starts hitting you with thematic elements from John Powell’s previous three scores for the franchise, even underscoring the famous Universal logo as soon as it starts to appear. Various bits of leitmotif are played with or inverted as a progression in this score, in a much more pleasing way, it seemed to me, than Powell’s own thematic progression in The Bourne Ultimatum. I can’t wait to hear how this one plays on the CD soundtrack.

The movie starts off with Renner on a kind of refresher survival course for the shady government bureau who ran the Treadstone and Black Briar programmes in the first three movies. This is designed to establish two things about this character who, by the way, is never referred to as Jason Bourne... , thankfully (Someone he isn’t... it’s “legacy”, remember?). “Thing one” is that he’s a tough guy... breaking a record time to complete the refresher by two days without even realising there was a record to beat. “Thing two” seems to be to show that he’s a lot more laid back than Damon’s Jason Bourne character was in the first three movies. He may be a lean, mean, killing machine but he’s also a lot more human than a lot of his un-met colleagues.

Also set up is the new premise that this branch of the intelligence agency, at least, have their super soldiers on drugs with a series of coloured pills to enhance both physical abilities (a green pill) and intelligence (a blue pill). The events of the third movie with Jason Bourne on the loose means the decision comes to terminate the majority of the various similar government agents/assassins in the field. For many, this is easily accomplished by instructing their agents to replace their blue and green pills with a yellow pill which will kill them shortly after swallowing. Being as he is in the wilderness, however, Renner is hunted with rocket firing drones instead, until he manages to lose his hip implanted ID chip (the same kind Bourne had cut out of his hip in the first movie in the series).

Meanwhile, a doctor is ordered by the government to take out all the high level scientists researching the drugs and he succeeds in killing the whole team apart from Dr. Marta Shearing, played by the brilliant Rachel Weisz, before turning the gun on himself. When the agency come to rectify her lucky escape at her house a little later, and you will definitely see that coming way before Shearing does, Aaron Cross comes to save the day, as he needs the drugs he thinks Shearing makes to keep him going. The two go on the run to Manilla so science whizz Dr. Shearing can concoct a viral lock to keep Cross off his blues permanently... pursued by the agency, the police and a super assassin the next stage up from the previous government super soldier programmes known about thus far. Yeah, okay. It’s a bit of a convenient and cringeworthy story element I suppose.

And as you can see... the plot on this one is very much a step down and long monologues about the science behind the drugs and intense high security meetings within the intelligence agency don’t quite hide the fact that this is a basic run, jump and chase story with a less complex plot than many other action movies out there at the moment. As such, I suspect, the producers might have been better making this as a stand alone film outside of the Bourne universe.

That being said though...

Just because the story is simplistic, this doesn’t stop the movie from being any good. The acting is top notch, as you’d expect from the cast assembled from this one, and the action/suspense sequences are quite well handled (better than in the last two) with all the run-jump-shoot-drive shenanigans being edited in a much more coherent and pulse-pounding manner. The final chase scene is a little anti-climactic, perhaps... you never do see Cross and the other super soldier go toe-to-toe in anything like a fist fight... but there’s a definite plus in that Rachel Weisz’s character shoulders a lot of the responsibility for the elimination of this threat and I was quite pleased that the final showdown, which I hadn’t even realised was the final showdown until it was over, was handled in a less formulaic manner. The story expectations really needed some kind of a lift.

As to be expected with these kind of tent peg movies, the film ends with the way clear for an inevitable sequel but with enough plot points tied up that it feels like the story could come to a close here if the producers let it. It’s not a bad ending and it leaves you with the slight hint of romantic promise for the characters, should they choose to go down that path.

All in all, if you were a fan of the last three movies and were attracted by the action sequences and the power-build, propulsive string bass and percussion lead, light techno infused scoring then you really shouldn’t have any problem with enjoying this movie at this level. It’s a pretty cool action piece. If, on the other hand, you were more enamoured of the story in the last three outings... well you might find some of the writing in this one a little dull and simplistic in places. I’d still say “give it a go” though. A little well choreographed action cinema can be just what the doctor ordered on occasion.

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