Dir. Tony Gilroy
The cinematic trilogy of Jason Bourne -- amnesiac superspy on a quest to find the truth of his identity even as his own country keeps trying to hunt him down with a vast network of operatives -- was, like its hero, fast, agile and impressively light on its feet. Much of that success can be attributed to its fine cast, including Matt Damon as the titular hero, and solid directors, from Doug Limon to Paul Greengrass. But the screenplays, dense with exotic locales, sudden turnabouts and surreptitious betrayals, were also far better than many of the genre's action-ready brethren.
Now, the screenwriter of the previous films, Tony Gilroy, has taken on the directing reigns for this fourth installment of the franchise, or, if you prefer, the first reboot without the services of Damon. In his place we have a new highly trained operative, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), whose memory remains intact, but through no fault of his own, runs afoul of the government that he's sworn to protect.
It's not that the original Bourne has completely vanished. His visage and scowling countenance still haunt the CIA operations team that originally spawned him. As the film begins, one such high-ranking intelligence officer, Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is asked to clean up what is purporting to be a hell of a mess. A British reporter is set to release a story that tracks not just the rogue black ops programs that created Bourne, but also every other subsequent illegal operation, including one that has taken Bourne's basic training and augmented it significantly with genetic modification, creating a small cadre of super-enhanced agents.
Faced with being outed and having to fess up to an understandably furious senate subcommittee, Byer and his people decide instead to pull the plug on the whole program, killing nearly everybody associated with it, including the field agents spread out throughout the world.
When we first meet Aaron Cross, he's stuck alone in the Alaskan wilderness on an extensive training exercise, fending off wolves and making his way to a designated checkpoint. When a U.S. drone suddenly fires on him, he quickly susses out the situation and heads back to DC, in order to uncover the plot and save his skin in the process. Along the way, he rescues Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the lone scientific researcher from the program's medical team still alive after everyone else in her lab was gunned down, and the two of them head out for the Philippines in order to complete Cross' genetic modifications.
You see, Cross has an interesting fatal weakness. Before he began taking the genetically enhancing medications the lab provided for him, his IQ was actually lower than average. The drugs are the only thing enabling him to stay one step ahead of the posse of CIA agents trying to wipe him and Dr. Shearing out.
Even if, essentially, we're watching an almost identical film to the originals -- a lone agent and a beautiful woman strike out against evil government hordes and travel all over the world in an attempt to escape them -- the formula is still surprisingly rich with flavor and nuance. Gilroy, whose previous work as both a writer and director includes the brilliant Michael Clayton and the snazzy Duplicity, knows how to concoct an absorbing plot, and his dialogue is both intelligent and suitably snappy. This is one film in which a beautiful scientist actually sounds like one when she speaks.
Gilroy has also wisely kept the film's signature hyper-pace and far-flung locales. In short order we're thrown from London to Alaska to Tokyo to Karachi, and back to northern Virginia. Still prevalent too, is the cut-and-chop editing and hand-held camera work that added an aura of authenticity to the original series. More significantly, it gives us a slightly different superagent to root for. We don't know terribly much about Cross, other than he seems less inclined to track down his superiors than to just get out of their sights, but he's also less wound-up and stodgy than Bourne. Instead of being a military overachiever, he's a guy who barely made it into the service to begin with, and can't believe what has happened to him since.
He is also dogged by nagging doubts about his role in this kind of program, despite a grim pep talk he receives from Col. Byer after one failed mission has cost civilian lives (the team, according to the Colonel is "morally indefensible and absolutely necessary" -- attaboy, champ!). All of which contribute to make him at least a bit more well-rounded than Bourne, who seemed to have become a black ops agent shortly after emerging from his mother's womb. Renner and Weisz also share a good chemistry together, keeping the film reasonably grounded, even as the story begins to wobble towards the end.
The film doesn't really tread any new ground for the franchise, but it keeps the same kinetic structure and frantic camerawork of the first trilogy without missing a beat, which in this summer's cinematic dog days, is not without significant merit. One gets the sense that it's holding back a significant amount for subsequent sequels -- in the course of this film Cross and the Colonel never directly confront one another -- but at least it gives us something to look forward to when the summer of 2014 has exhausted every other cape, cowl and repulsor ray on its agenda.