Re-Bourne into speed and chaos

A Bourne film starring anyone other than Matt Damon had better offer a decent justification for its existence. The Bourne Legacy makes a stab at doing so in its tagline: “There was never just one”. But the point of Jason Bourne was that he was sui generis! To be told that he was merely primus inter pares undermines the whole enterprise.

It proves not to be true, leaving the earlier films intact and this new one in deep water. There was always just one; now, belatedly and unnecessarily, there is another. Jason Bourne was an amnesiac black-ops specialist who recovered his memory and then went about exposing the murky history of the secret intelligence programme Treadstone, evading capture on all manner of continents and landing the CIA in all kinds of difficulties.

The new film concerns the CIA clean-up conceived in the wake of the Bourne cock-up. The new hero, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a black-ops specialist (not amnesiac but the subject of neurological tinkering), is part of the secret intelligent programme Outcome, all trace of which his employers are keen to erase. For complicated biomedical reasons, Cross flies to the Philippines with a virologist (Rachel Weisz) but the ex-colonel in charge of black-ops clean-up (a neutered Ed Norton) is on their trail. Though the film’s chronology overlaps with that of The Bourne Ultimatum, its events are basically autonomous. “Legacy”, it turns out, is just a fancy term for new can of worms.

New but not distinctive or fresh. At times the film is closer to a remake than a spin-off, with strange results. A chase scene, in which an assassin from another CIA secret intelligence programme (the improbably named Larx) pursues Cross through the streets of Manila (less than thrilling, since you asked), is strikingly similar to the chase through the streets of Tangiers in which Cross’s sort-of-colleague Jason Bourne had engaged just a few months earlier. A coincidence? Or perhaps it’s CIA protocol for every manhunt to involve motorbikes, local police, rooftops, and an imperilled woman?

It’s not a comparison the film should seek to draw. Where The Bourne Ultimatum was a lesson in how to construct a jargon-heavy, location-hopping, it-goes-all-the-way-up-to-the-top spy thriller, The Bourne Legacy is a lesson in how not to. An hour of expository dialogue follows an hour of exhaustively depicted backstory. In the earlier films it mattered that the fast talking was comprehensible, that the chaotic action was given a sense of order. The new film only preserves the speed and the chaos.

Director Tony Gilroy steps into the shoes of Paul Greengrass (they look clownish on him). Among the others who haven’t returned are Damon, the editor Christopher Rouse, and the composer John Powell. (It’s not even very-loosely based on a Robert Ludlum novel.) As the female interest who goes along for the ride, Rachel Weisz matches up to Julia Stiles, but an attempt to re-enact the beautiful, frisson-y ending of The Bourne Ultimatum – a woman’s smile cueing Moby’s “Extreme Ways” – only confirms the sense of coat-tails being dragged.

The Expendables 2 had rather less far to fall. It concerns a band of mercenaries, among them Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis are among their affiliates; Jean-Claude Van Damme is the villain; Chuck Norris plays a fellow mercenary who keeps on saving Stallone and co and then insisting that he rides alone. All in all, not a fresh-faced bunch. Even Statham is five years older than Danny Glover was when he first uttered his Lethal Weapon catchphrase: “I’m too old for this shit.”

The film is partly a cautionary tale about the dangers of decades of bodybuilding and partly a throwback to the good old days of the Reagan era, when all you needed to make an action film was a man with muscles, an exotic setting and a hundred screaming extras – before the airy-fairy sophistication of the Nineties/Noughties revised-version (Con Air, Goldeneye, the Bourne films) with all its acting and plotting. Simon West, who made Con Air, does a good impersonation (not for the first time) of a director lacking personality and panache.

Take this Waltz, a tale of a quarter-life-crisis starring Michelle Williams, is an altogether gentler affair – Brief Encounter in the style of Before Sunrise. The writer-director Sarah Polley, who did a more restrained job on Away from Her, relies on familiar flourishes. Close-ups from behind of people walking; woozy slow motion to evoke exhaustion or upset; an acoustic soundtrack replacing natural sounds – the indie/arthouse equivalent of Stallone and Statham’s macho banter.

Polley delivers a rich evocation of the central marriage, with its mixture of by-rote ritual and easy comfort, and makes the wise and unusual decision to portray the cuckold-to-be (Seth Rogen) as decent and good-natured, rather than stiff or cruel. Unfortunately, it also serves to render her crush on their rickshaw-driver-by-day, painter-by-night neighbour (Luke Kirby) even more bewildering. The conversations between husband and wife are more spontaneous, less strained and self-conscious, than those between wife and would-be lover.

A neat piece of patterning, whereby the main character’s vacillation runs parallel with the attempts of her alcoholic sister-in-law (a terrific Sarah Silverman) to stay clean, is ruined when dialogue points it up. And the film’s subtle portrayal of temptation and regret is spoiled by an over-explicit, epilogue-style ending.

The Bird is a study of grief and recovery set in Bordeaux and containing little in the way of dialogue, action or interest. The actress, Sandrine Kiberlain, who appears in all but one scene, has deep sad eyes, but the film is less interested in expressiveness than atmospherics, especially the atmosphere offered by drift and quiet. Writer-director Yves Caumon isn’t the first to show that trying to follow the Eric Rohmer recipe is no good if you lack the secret ingredient. Call it grace.

What Rohmer is to recent French cinema, Harold Pinter is to recent British, at least of the gangster-centred, lo-fi variety. In both cases, the economy of means is attractive. Rohmer seems to reduce cinema to a pretty girl and an empty street (or a stretch of beach). And it’s hard to think of a playwright or screenwriter whose example can be so easily followed by cash-trapped film-makers as that of Pinter.

The Devil’s Business starts off like The Birthday Party – two pattering men (one of them called Pinner) arrive at a house on shadowy business. Sean Hogan’s dialogue is closer to straightforward tough-talk – almost Stallone-Statham-esque at times – than he wants it to be. The men bicker, a hierarchy emerges. And then things takes an unexpected swerve into occult territory – a bizarre and tiresome development that leaves you longing for when the film was just derivative and flat.

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