There is a scene late in the 1965 movie of John Le Carré’s seminal thriller, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in which Alec Leamas (played by Richard Burton), drives toward Berlin after narrowly escaping execution when an East German show trial goes sideways. He explains to his passenger, an innocent, lonely young woman who wandered into the wrong London political meeting some years back, how the mathematics of double-crosses piled on triple-crosses, divided by nationalism, patriotism, and confusion, can lead to one soul-shattering mess. If you haven’t read Le Carré’s book or seen the movie, you should do both. I won’t spoil things, but suffice to say, it can’t end well for the people entwined in that equation.
That background will increase your security clearance for the latest in the Jason Bourne series, The Bourne Legacy, the fourth in the cinematic line and a departure in that it was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, writer of the first three Bourne films.. The original series grew out of the books by Robert Ludlum, a spy/suspense novelist who earned the right to be mentioned on the same page as Le Carré. Ludlum wrote the first three Bourne books; the franchise was so popular that author Eric Van Lustbader picked up from there and wrote seven more.
The better-known departure is that of Matt Damon, star of the first three Bourne movies. He isn’t in Legacy, and that has some fans of the series worried. But there’s no need to go rogue. This latest Bourne adventure doesn’t miss a step. It can’t, because when the plot is this sinister and twisted and the action this fast and hard, there’s no margin for error.
It’s Jeremy Renner, he of 2008’s The Hurt Locker, who picks up the thread as the loner du jour, and he who is now in a car explaining things to a virology Ph.D. played by Rachel Wiesz. The tale of biological terror they piece together drives a nerve-fraying narrative of power exploding and splattering its guts on everyone nearby, so much so that you wonder how any human could scrape together the guts to escape it.
Weisz as a virus doctor? That’s a tip-off, but not a giveaway; of course mind control and drugs are involved. But as the action careens between Washington, London, New York and Manila, the more potent weapon is trust. Given or withheld, it metastasizes into saving grace or fatal mistake, sometimes changing within seconds. It’s hard — and invigorating — to stay ahead of the characters here; we size up their allies and adversaries only seconds before they do, and sometimes we’re late. Clues abound, but so do blind alleys, both literal and figurative. Best not to see this picture if your pacemaker needs adjusting.
Not that it’s all action. Renner is spot-on as the mightily capable, but psychically confused, Aaron Cross. Weisz is incapable of bad acting; she layers believability across a challenging range of emotions and situations. Edward Norton, who tries hard to put on some age as a retired Air Force colonel now high up in national security operations, has the craggy face down. But his voice still sounds like he’s a recent college graduate working at a coffee place. Still, you can’t ignore him on screen. He can do a lot more with that face than he did in Fight Club, thank goodness.
But the action — well, my God. Again, it’s no giveaway to say that this movie contains the best chase scene in motion picture history. Other Bourne chases and injuryfests pale in comparison. The editing is so tight, so manic, that the chase even got wearying in its later stages — but just try to look away.
And when changes of pace were necessary, Gilroy had a visual marker ready on cue; close-ups and raw emotions melded seamlessly, aided by audio that never dropped anything important despite the scenic confusion. True, guns don’t sound that loud even when you slam in a clip, but that’s not what I’m talking about. You’ll hear what I mean.
But beyond the entertainment, the Bourne films have always done what a good spy movie is supposed to do: send you out of the theatre with a slightly metallic taste in your mouth when you realize that some, or all, of what you just saw is not only plausible, but likely. That authenticity is what Le Carré, an MI-6 alumnus, went for in his books and achieved with such ease. The Bourne books and movies — Legacy in particular — do that too, but the only ease you’ll feel after digesting this story is of the “un” variety. —Adam Barr
Copyright 2012 Adam Barr