One wonders what a cultural theorist such as Slavoj Zizek would make of the Bourne films? Beyond the lashings of action, suspense and skullduggery they are textbook lessons in the repressive power of the state, guaranteed to appeal to conspiracy theorists of both left and right persuasions.
The world in which Jason Bourne, and new protagonist, Aaron Cross, operate is a completely paranoid one. The enemy is no foreign power, but dark forces within the United States government. It is a long time since the G-Men were the heroes in Hollywood movies – nowadays the government is always the embodiment of evil.
The line between the good guys and the bad guys was eliminated in the very first movie in the sequence, The Bourne Identity (2002). Since then, every step Bourne or Cross takes, is tracked by the secret services with staggering speed. Wherever you go, whatever you do, they’ll be watching.
If the real life secret services were this efficient they would have cleaned up Osama Bin Laden within minutes. Instead, we have learned to be cynical about the effectiveness of spy agencies, who seem to have a penchant for major stuff-ups.
Jason Bourne does not star in this new film, largely because Matt Damon decided he’d had enough of the booming franchise. But the producers have left the door open. Bourne is a ghostly presence. We see his name and his photo. We learn he’s in New York, but he never makes an appearance. The new super operative is played by Jeremy Renner, who has the same rugged, slightly weather-beaten appearance that has served Daniel Craig well in the role of James Bond.
The Bourne Legacy is directed by Tony Gilroy, who wrote the scripts for the previous three films, but never got along with earlier directors, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. It would be nice to report that, given control at last, Gilman has produced a film that shows his predecessors how it should be done. Unfortunately his efforts don’t seem all that different from the others. The Bourne movies have followed a highly successful formula, and there is no percentage in doing anything radically different.
In terms of directorial style, Gilroy is not as frenetic as Greengrass, and perhaps more indulgent with the complexities of his own script. Beyond the conspiracy theories, the movie is basically a big-budget entertainment.
Like Bourne, Cross is a pre-programmed assassin. He has been trained to be a one-man army; chemically modified to have superhuman strength, intelligence, speed and endurance. Like Bourne, Cross is basically a decent fellow inexplicably caught up in the nasty business of espionage and murder. The sensitivity of these heroes requires a more stenuous suspension of disbelief than the chase sequences.
To heighten the sense of paranoia, Cross is not even a creature of the CIA, but a special ultra-secret intelligence group that occupies a higher echelon in the hierarchy of spooks. One imagines an endless chain of ever more secret, ever more ruthless spy groups. Edward Norton plays the boss, Ed Byers, as a grey, Adolf Eichmann-style bureaucrat, for whom the ends justifies any means. “Morally reprehensible and absolutely essential,” is the way he defines his role.
When the cover for their special agents is blown, this group is determined to kill off every single operative, and the doctors and scientists who have participated in the program. This may sound improbable, let alone wasteful, but it is the trigger that brings Cross together with Dr. Marta Shearling, who is also on the hit list. He needs her to get access to the chemicals that can stabilise his metabolism, she needs him in order to survive. Rachel Weisz plays this role, bringing a new glamour to the profession of biochemist.
The story begins with Cross diving into a frozen Arctic pool to collect a map, in a deliberate echo of the floating body that opens the first Bourne movie. After a few hair-raising moments in the northern forests, the action switches to the United States, and then to the Philippines, where the program houses its drug factory.
This is the setting for the inevitable chase sequence, on motor-bike through the crowded streets of Manila. In the manner of all good spy/horror/action films, there is also an implacable oriental killer, named LARX #3, who keeps on coming when he should be flattened. This chase was so long and complicated viewers will find themselves glancing at their watches when they should be held spellbound with excitement.
Perhaps the most astonishing relevation of The Bourne Legacy was to find Shane Jacobson, better known as Kenny Smythe, the guru of waste management, moonlighting as Head of Security at the US government’s Manila drug factory. It seems that the worldwide conspiracy of evil goes even deeper than we’d imagined.
The Bourne Legacy, USA, rated M, 135 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 25, 2012