Tony Gilroy, who was a writer on Bournes Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum, returns here as co-scribe and director for the fourth entry in the series, which takes place pretty much concurrently with Ultimatum, and is at once very familiar territory.
Gilroy has succeeded in maintaining the feel and tone of the Bourne films, and although this film suffers a little for the lack of Matt Damon’s sympathetic lead character, the presence of Jeremy Renner – as super soldier Aaron Cross – means his absence isn’t felt too damningly.
In a skilfully edited first act, Cross’ Alaskan training – we see him swim in freezing rivers, battle wolves and climb mountains – is intercut with the kinds of scenes that form the groundwork of this series – learned men and women wandering around in rooms looking at monitors, barking orders and reeling off snappy, well-written dialogue. It’s a concise, well-paced and pretty gripping opening, the drive of which is sadly muffled a bit in the film’s third act, in which characterisation makes way for the inevitable chase sequences, the final of which – a motorbike and foot chase in Manila – is extended to the point where it begins to teeter into dull territory.
It’s unfortunate that Cross turns out to be a less interesting protagonist than Jason Bourne, and this despite the film establishing him strongly, particularly in some tense scenes with Oscar Isaac. As things move on, and he embarks on his search for the chemicals he needs to keep his brain and muscles charged, he regresses rather disappointingly into a more standard action hero. This is tempered by Renner’s performance – which is good – and some effective but brief flashbacks, but ultimately his plight isn’t as involving as Bourne’s was.
Given that the film really shifts up a gear in the final third, this is ironically the point that it loses its momentum. Cross and his partner-on-the-run Dr Marta Shearing (played nicely by Rachel Weisz) get to interact less when they’re running around, and the engrossing politics and chatter that were so prominent in the first half of the film – in which Eric Byers (Edward Norton) attempts to cover up all the government’s backfiring secret projects, of which Cross is one – gets lost. The ending – which may or may not bait a sequel – is distinctly underwhelming, perhaps because we find ourselves wondering what exactly is next for this character, now that most of the film’s narrative strain has been tied up.
There are some minor logistical issues while Byers and his team are tracking the runaways – on more than one occasion they just seem to stumble upon things against huge odds, or finds things rather too easily. But it cannot be said that the film doesn’t have some strong set pieces – a frantic shooting in a science lab for one. The action is captured in the now familiar hyper-kinetic style, which mostly conveys the fight scenes in an effective way, but still occasionally disorients the viewer, failing to give a real sense of what is going on.
Short of engineering a meeting between Matt Damon’s Bourne character and Renner’s new protagonist (which seems unlikely, given Damon’s lack of involvement here), it’s difficult to see where the series can go now, unless it becomes a sort of James Bond-style franchise, in which the main characters are continuously reinterpreted. For that to happen successfully, someone will need to think up a new, compelling narrative arc, and not be afraid to veer away from the series’ staples.