The Bourne Legacy may look like a desperate cash cow, but it didn’t have to be. That’s because of Tony Gilroy. The chief architect of the Bourne franchise, Gilroy was pissed when his script for Supremacy, the series’ second, was pummeled into pure whiplash action by director Paul Greengrass, thus softening what he had planned as a tale of redemption. In retaliation, he only turned in a hasty, pissy rough draft on Ultimatum, described by Damon as a “career-ender.” In a 2009 New Yorker piece, he claimed to have never watched it.
Legacy finds Gilroy with the playpen all to himself: Greengrass is gone, and with him Matt Damon. That leaves Gilroy, now in the director’s chair, to offer his undiluted vision of a Jason Bourne picture—or as undiluted as a Jason Bourne picture can be minus Jason Bourne. With Jeremy Renner present as an atypically acceptable Ted Wass to Damon’s Peter Sellers, this—both a new installment and a reboot—should have been gangbusters: Gilroy’s directing credits include the ‘70s-ish Michael Clayton and the delightfully byzantine and sorely underrated romance Duplicity. He’s an anal-retentive with a gift for opening credit sequences and structure. He’s particularly adept at “reversals,” a screenwriting trick where we’re suddenly hit with new, game-changing facts about our protagonists. (One early on in Duplicity will break your mind.)
What’s surprising, then, is how few of Gilroy’s gifts are employed. The narrative is a vague rehash of the first picture, this time refocused on Renner, a different-but-similar badass from a different-but-similar secret government program, this one tied to drugs. Renner gets his own girl in Rachel Weisz’s biochemist, and the one novel idea is that, Weisz being an actual actress, her character should be realistically traumatized and shocked by the mayhem in which she finds herself.
But Gilroy fails them: Like Christopher Nolan, he’s a brainiac who can’t direct action, and even as a writer he comes up short, allowing the simple chase plot to get weighed down by explanation and mythology. That Legacy's first act occurs concurrently with Ultimatum — with that one’s five-year-old scenes spliced in—suggests that Gilroy has finally seen at least some of it. For the audience, it will simply make them realize they’re watching the wrong film.