A couple of things become clear early on in the new Bourne movie: Jeremy Renner is an excellent choice to carry on the legacy, but Tony Gilroy is not. Who is Tony Gilroy? Well, here he’s both writer and director, but in the original trilogy he was the screenwriter only. I imagine the discussions at Universal going down something like this: “We really want to continue the franchise, but Damon and Greengrass have both taken a pass. Now what do we do? Hey Tony, would you like to keep writing? What do you mean, only if you get to direct too?” Now the right decision at that point would have been to cut bait and do a complete reboot…well, actually the right decision would have been to kill the franchise, but this being Hollywood, somehow it made sense to give Gilroy the reins, by far the #1 mistake of the film. So what do you get when you hire a writer to direct an action movie? A lot of talking. As a caution, there be spoilers ahead, mateys.
Mistake #2: no big action set piece to open the film. Instead, we get Renner as Bourne contemporary Aaron Cross alone in the Alaskan wilderness, showing off his survival skills as he progresses toward some unknown destination. OK, no talking here, but far too much needless time spent wandering around aimlessly. Cross scales icy cliffs with ease, leaps chasms with abandon, and fights off a pack of wolves, but to no end other than to demonstrate at length his badassery. When you’re modeling your franchise on Bond, how do you forget a show-stopping opening sequence?
Eventually, Cross crosses paths with a fellow operative stuck in a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere, and the two agents compare notes and try to determine if they’re friends or foes. Cross is desperate for meds that the government has been feeding him, blue and green pills that boost his physical and cognitive abilities. Too bad, the other agent isn’t willing to part with any of his stash. Cue an aerial drone dropping by for an unannounced visit, and what’s this? It brought along a couple of missiles as hostess gifts. Boom, agent number two and his cabin are eliminated, and Cross is clued in that the government has just ended his agent program. He employs his skills to evade death while successfully leading his opponents to believe they’ve offed him.
Meanwhile, back in D.C., there’s plenty of discussion going on in top-secret government agencies about Cross. And Bourne. And the drugs that make them special. And the exposed friendship between the heads of two organizations that aren’t supposed to be publicly connected. And how they need to kill the agent program. Mistake #3: blah blah blah. You’d think with all of that talking going on, we’d be getting some decent explanations of what’s happening, but instead we’re faced with a hydra of clandestine, somehow interrelated government agencies and completely disjointed scenes that just left me completely bewildered, even after watching the previous three Bourne films. Edward Norton pops up as Somebody Important, leading most of the talking but never really defining who he works for or his role. CIA? Blackbriar? No clue, sorry. I had to check the IMDB info to discover that his character is “Retired Col. Eric Bayer, USAF”, which still doesn’t help.
Bourne is concurrently out causing havoc offscreen, and the higher-ups have decided that they need to eliminate all traces of the agent program and start over from scratch once the heat has died down. That means offing all active agents, including Cross. As we learn along the way, there are nine agents total (a completely unsubtle nod to Bond’s double-0 comrades). Oh, and there are also U.S. lab workers to consider, the poor schmucks who created the magical blue and green pills in the first place and monitored the health of the agents. Can’t have them escaping into the wild after all. That brings us to mistake #4: a prolonged murder spree by a gun-wielding lab worker, ordered to clean house and carrying out his directive by methodically and coldly gunning down his co-workers before killing himself. It’s impossible to watch the sequence without thinking of the recent Colorado theater and Wisconsin Sikh temple massacres. OK, it’s more bad timing than bad form, but I would imagine some Universal suits are losing sleep over its inclusion.
Mistake #5: Rachel Weisz. Look, I like Weisz. A lot. But she’s terrible in this role as surviving lab worker and damsel for Cross to rescue. She has no chemistry with Renner until the final frames, and her whining is so grating that it kept taking me out of the narrative. As sole survivor of the massacre, her character Marta returns home and packs for a trip to visit her sister in Canada, which prompts a visit by a government team who are ostensibly vetting her psychological well-being before she leaves. Wrong! They’re totally there to kill you, dummy! Mistake #6: they actually take the time to pretend to be on her side, sitting down for a long cozy kitchen chat while Weisz complains, accuses, and generally annoys. Their plan is to stage a suicide so they eventually thrust a pistol in her hand and begin trying to force it to her head. So why didn’t they just do that in the first place instead of boring us with all the unnecessary chatter? Cue Super-Cross to the rescue, as he bursts into the home and makes short work of the team.
Cross wants drugs from Marta, but she doesn’t have any of course. Oh, and she informs him he doesn’t need the physical pill anymore, just the cognitive one, because they made his physical enhancements viral so once he’s infected he’s set for life. Convenient plot device: the cognitive enhancement isn’t viral, but smartypants Marta can probably make it so if they can get to the source of the virus. Inconvenient plot device: it’s in Manila. Why Manila? Absolutely no conceivable reason except for whatever financial considerations they were able to offer the production. Gilroy could have set the virus lab anywhere in the world, but by setting it halfway around the globe from the Eastern U.S., he grinds the action to a halt by having them board a plane for the better part of a day. Yawn, and obviously mistake #7. His attempt at a tension-filled flight involves cutting back and forth to the boys in D.C. scouring surveillance footage from all across the Eastern seaboard as they try to locate Marta and eventually discover Cross is assisting her.
For our next convenient plot device, witness the surprise reveal of a top-top secret agent program that was believed to be theoretical but turns out to have a fully trained, killer operative with no human empathy and even greater skills ready to roll from his Asian base a mere two hours from Cross and Marta. Think a T-1000 Terminator without the liquid metal, that’s basically the gist of the one-dimensional character. Cross and Marta have to infiltrate the Philippine virus lab, whip up the homebrew, infect Cross, and evade the super agent to save the day. Mistake #8: did you catch that the cognitive thing is a virus? So Cross actually has to get violently ill and completely incapacitated in order to become permanently super smart? Let’s just grind the action to a stop again while Cross holes up in a seedy hotel and sweats out the illness. That’ll give us time to let the boys in D.C. flap their gums a lot more about how hard it is to catch this guy and how screwed they all are if they don’t. Oh, and maybe we can tie it back to the Bourne storyline again by very briefly calling in Joan Allen to reprise her role.
Once Cross is back on his feet, he leads the Manila police and the super-agent on a chase over the rooftops on foot and through the crowded streets on motorcycle, setting up some mildly entertaining but completely predictable action. Can they evade the baddies and escape off the grid? How else would we get Bourne 5? Wait, don’t answer that, Gilroy might get an even more harebrained idea.
The film is over two hours but feels much longer due to all of the talking and the paucity of action. It’s filmed well, and Renner is a surprisingly commanding and charismatic presence, but with its soggy script and grating co-star it’s ultimately too much for Renner to save.