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This is not an exaggeration: the Bourne trilogy changed the face of action movies. They cut the fat out of the big-budget action flick and streamlined it for the audience whose patience was being shortened by the Internet (The Bourne Identity came out in 2002).
They also changed the whole notion of "action star". Prior to Bourne, action stars were usually muscle-bound, rather…limited actors of the Stallone-Schwarzenegger school (They are now retro, as in The Expendables). The role of Robert Ludlum's amnesiac secret agent went to Matt Damon, an acclaimed dramatic actor. Damon and Bourne were the perfect match: Damon became one of the biggest stars on the planet, and Bourne gained a critical reputation that was usually denied action flicks. Critics were forced to take action movies seriously.
In essence the Bourne movie formula was: Cut to the chase. That's why they needed an actor of Damon's caliber: If you have a hero who can convey rapid, complex thought without speaking, you don't need too much exposition. You want explanations? Look at his face. When director Paul Greengrass took over the helm from Doug Liman, the movies became even less talky and more kinetic.
At the end of the third movie, The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007, Jason Bourne was floating face down in the East River, shot but still alive. Producers started planning the next installment - why abandon a franchise that was so lucrative?
Then Matt Damon declined to do a fourth movie, adding some scathing remarks about the Bourne Ultimatum screenplay delivered by Tony Gilroy. (This sounds less diva-like when you recall that Damon has won an Oscar for screenwriting.) Gilroy, who'd written the Bourne trilogy, had become an acclaimed director as well (the wonderful legal drama Michael Clayton starring George Clooney). In the end producers announced that a fourth movie, The Bourne Legacy, would be written and directed by Gilroy and starring another acclaimed actor, Jeremy Renner - not as Jason Bourne, but as a different agent. A brilliant move, because if the movie didn't work, there was still the original character to fall back on.
Last year the Philippines became invested in the fate of the series when The Bourne Legacy cast and crew descended on Metro Manila for filming. We don't have to remind you of the massive traffic jams that resulted from major thoroughfares being closed to the public for that. In return we were promised that our city would play a prominent role in the film - not as Vietnam (Apocalypse Now), Indonesia (The Year of Living Dangerously), or Thailand (Brokedown Palace), but as Manila herself. Yay, we're going to be in the movies! Shot by the brilliant cinematographer Robert Elswit!
(To understand the Pinoys' excitement at being in a Hollywood movie, consider that when the first Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was shown in Manila theatres, when the flight path of Indy's plane crossed the Philippine map, we cheered.)
So let's get that question out of the way: Yes, Manila plays a big role in The Bourne Legacy. Those hours you spent sitting in rerouted traffic because Pasay Taft was closed - you kind of helped make this movie. The final quarter takes place in Manila, and it is the best part, with not just one or two but three huge action scenes. Tagalog is spoken constantly, and local actors John Arcilla, Madeleine Nicolas and Lou Veloso make an impression.
(To understand the Pinoys’ excitement at hearing Tagalog in a Hollywood movie, consider that in Michael Bay's The Rock, when agents chased their quarry across a San Francisco kitchen and a cook yelled "P!@#$%^&*mo!", we cheered.)
You might even say that Manila saves The Bourne Legacy. But that would mean that The Bourne Legacy needs saving. Spoilers ahead, consider yourselves warned.
Writer-director Gilroy has made major changes to the formula. The fast-lean-mean approach: gone. The first 20 minutes contain more dialogue than we recall from the last two movies, and it's dialogue we don't really need to hear.
Edward Norton as the head of yet another secret intelligence service (There are so many secret agencies in the Bourne universe, we have to wonder if there are any non-secret jobs in America. Hey Ed, what's the first rule of Fight Club?) is alerted to the danger of exposure - Jason Bourne is in New York and he could out everyone. The name "Jason Bourne" is dropped throughout the movie to remind us that it is the continuation of a successful series; we hear the name so often, we expect Matt Damon to jump out and announce that he's changed his mind.
In the Bourne universe, exposure is the worst thing that could happen, and the only solution is to kill anyone who might say anything. (In real life exposure may not even have consequences, as the managers of the American economy have learned.) This has been going on since The Bourne Identity, so it's amazing that there's anyone left to kill. A fact we haven't pointed out until now, because the previous movies didn't test our patience by announcing that they were going to kill everyone. They just shut up and killed.
Then there is the matter of the hero. Jason Bourne was the fighting (Filipino Martial Arts in lieu of chatter) embodiment of that most basic, classic theme: Who am I? Literally, because he has amnesia. When that question is answered, the character is forced to face his personal responsibility and guilt. A man on the run from himself finally stops and sees the truth. It's the human condition, in thriller form.
In contrast Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) knows his entire personal history, and is aware of what his job entails. There's mention of guilt, but he's not driven by the need for atonement. We know this because he's quite chatty. He chats up his colleague in the Alaska station, he chats up the beautiful scientist (Rachel Weisz) who's taking his blood samples. Later, they have very long chats full of scientific jargon about the drugs his handlers have been giving him for years—many minutes of tedious exposition that may be covered by the words: "They're enhancements!"
(Look away! Spoiler!)
Why do they keep talking about the drugs? Because it would appear that Cross embodies another basic though not classic theme: Where are my meds?
There are some great set pieces, but the scenes that lead up to them are so lame, it feels like a first-rate thriller has been smooshed with a boring TV movie. Renner is a fine actor and a gritty action hero - we wish he'd done less talking and scenery-chewing and more running and hand-to-hand combat. A serious challenger emerges, but they don't even fight! We thought this was an action movie.
Rachel Weisz is too good for this. Edward Norton, why? Excellent actors from the previous movies - Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney - reprise their roles in short scenes that remind us yet again that this is the fourth movie in a series and they've been dealing with the same issues since the first one. Yeah, we got it the first 50 times.
And just when the movie picks up, it ends. Not with a bang, but with a Huh?
The Philippines looks fabulous in that scene, though. To understand the Pinoys' excitement at seeing their country looking fabulous in a Hollywood movie, consider that when those islands came into view, we cheered.