Damon Fades as $1 Billion Franchise Spins On: Rainer File

'The Bourne Legacy'
Jeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy." Tony Gilroy's expansion of the Robert Ludlum story picks up the events of the first three films. Photographer: Mary Cybulski/Universal Studios via Bloomberg

The ad for “The Bourne Legacy” informs us, “There Was Never Just One.” And so it is with the “Bourne” movies.

As long as they continue to rake it in -- almost $1 billion so far, and counting -- this franchise shows no sign of fading to black.

More a re-boot than a sequel, “Legacy” mostly dispenses with Jason Bourne and introduces Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as a chemically-enhanced U.S. government assassin.

Co-written and directed by Tony Gilroy, it’s the fourth film in the series, which began in 2002 with Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity” (still my favorite).

If you’re counting television, the bloodline goes back to the 2-part 1988 ABC mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain as everybody’s favorite amnesiac off-the-grid CIA assassin.

The mini-series more closely followed Robert Ludlum’s 1980 bestseller than did the 2002 Damon version, directed by Doug Limon, but, except for Ludlum purists, who really cares? Limon’s version dispensed with all that Ludlum baggage about Vietnam and Carlos the Jackal, concentrating on smash-and-grab action.

Buff Damon

Damon -- credible as a man who doesn’t remember who he is and who, unlike Chamberlain, looks like he could indeed take out a roomful of assailants -- is terrific. As a survivalist, he manages to be both cerebral and kinesthetic -- a brainiac human missile.

Ludlum wrote three “Bourne” books before he died -- he didn’t live to see the release of “The Bourne Identity” movie -- and they all share a Cold War mindset. By contrast, the “Bourne” films, which also include 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy” and 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” (both starring Damon and directed by Paul Greengrass), exist in a post-9/11 world.

The Black Ops tortures and assassinations are argued for as necessities. “We need these programs now,” says CIA honcho David Strathairn in “Ultimatum.” Even though he’s ostensibly a villain (this is confirmed when he orders a heart-healthy omelet for lunch) so is just about everybody else in the “Bourne” movies. Even Bourne, sort of. He just can’t remember the villainy he was programmed to carry out

Collateral Damage

We periodically watch him knock off not only his assailants but also vast populations of collateral innocents (as in the Berlin car chase scene in “Supremacy.”) In “Ultimatum,” he actually apologizes, but that seems like a sop to the PC contingent. Being Bourne means -- or ought to mean -- never having to say you’re sorry. That’s life.

His amnesia, which partially falls away in the Damon movies, harkens back to the pre-Cold War era. It’s a holdover from those 1940s B-list films noir like “Somewhere in the Night” and “The Dark Past,” or retro updates like “Memento” and “Mulholland Drive.”

Sullen, a loner by nature as much as by necessity, Bourne is the anti-James Bond (at least pre-Daniel Craig). His itinerary may be just as impressive as James Bond’s -- with stopovers in Tangier, Madrid, Berlin, Paris and London, among other photogenic places -- but he gets no pleasure from them. He’s too hounded. And unlike Bond, he’s not vain. You can’t imagine him wearing a tux. No disguises for him. No bad puns. Very little booty. He doesn’t go in for sunglasses much, even in Tangier.

Cross Purpose

Renner’s Aaron Cross is almost as sullen as Bourne, and even less apologetic. He breaks necks in the line of duty -- nothing personal -- and moves on.

Greengrass, who passed on “Legacy” and has a running feud with Gilroy, has dubbed the project “The Bourne Redundancy.” I wouldn’t go that far. Even though I miss Bourne in it, I don’t miss Greengrass’s herky-jerky camerawork, which is supposed to be “realistic” but made me want to reach for the Dramamine.

Gilroy at least understands that the “Bourne” movies sell fantasy, which is best delivered with a steady hand.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Peter Rainer on movies.

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