When Jeremy Renner got sent the script for The Bourne Legacy, the first question that sprang to his mind was the one all the fans have been asking: how do you do a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne? The actor who has come to prominence in The Hurt Locker, The Avengers and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was as confused as the amnesiac Bourne. "I wasn't getting it," he admits. "Are they re-booting it?" It's a fair ask: perhaps this would be Bourne reborn, repackaged for the next generation.
One thing was for sure: Matt Damon, the star who helped steer The Bourne Identity and its two sequels to a US$944 million (Dh3.5 billion) global box-office haul, wasn't coming back for a fourth outing. He and Paul Greengrass, who directed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, had both walked when it became clear that nobody could come up with a way to continue Bourne's story beyond Ultimatum. As the covert CIA agent says, rather definitively, in that film, "This is where it ends".
"It was very difficult to figure out how to continue Jason Bourne after they'd wrapped up the package so tightly," notes Tony Gilroy, who penned the first three films. Gilroy left the franchise in 2007, after handing in the Ultimatum script. He went off to write and direct the legal drama Michael Clayton, gaining two Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. After following it with the Julia Roberts vehicle Duplicity, writing a fourth Bourne "wasn't on my wish list," he says. As the grey-haired New Yorker puts it: "It was probably the last thing I thought I'd do."
But, intrigued by the challenge of expanding the Bourne story without the help of Damon, the 55-year-old Gilroy came up with a rather elegant solution. Rewinding events to Ultimatum, with Bourne now in the backdrop, the story begins as the CIA reacts to the political ramifications of Bourne's very public activities. Led by the new character Byer (Edward Norton), the suits proceed to ruthlessly shut down the programme that Bourne was the guinea pig for, assassinating every agent in training.
One of the targets is Renner's Aaron Cross, a thoroughbred trainee who begins the film emerging from freezing cold Alaskan waters as if it were a dip in a paddling pool. "There's not a lot of similarities between him and Bourne, outside of the fact that they're in the same umbrella of programmes that develop assassins and spies," says Renner. "Aaron Cross signs up for something. He knows exactly who he is. He wants to be part of something. Jason Bourne, as we all know, is still trying to figure out who he was and who he is and what he's done, and his feelings about that, the redemption and guilt."
Joining up with Marta (Rachel Weisz), a scientist responsible for administering genetics-altering drugs to the agents, Cross goes on the run, trying to escape the clutches of an espionage organisation capable of tracking anyone. "They can track you right here," says Gilroy, pointing to my mobile on the table between us. "There's your phone. They know right where you are."
Named after the fourth novel in the Bourne series (actually by Eric Van Lustbader, the first of seven spin-offs written after the original creator Robert Ludlum died), it came with the perfect title. "The Bourne estate is very happy we were doing that," says Gilroy. "But there's not a lot of linkage left." There never was; after the first 20 minutes of The Bourne Identity, the film veered away from Ludlum's original novel, never to meet again. While Ludlum's page-turners feel rather antiquated now, the Bourne movie franchise has always felt bang up-to-date.
Norton, who calls the series "like chapters of a grand novel that's unfolding", The Bourne Legacy's very modern themes as part of Gilroy's wider body of work. "I think the theme that Tony keeps exploring over and over again in his films is the way that corporations have become this vampiric force in our lives. Whether it's Michael Clayton or Duplicity or the Bourne films, Tony has got this thread about people being co-opted by corporate forces, about the way that people in different sectors - science, government - are all in some sense working for these corporate forces."
Not that it's fair to leave the impression that this is all philosophising and table-talking. After all, Bourne's legacy has been to influence the style of just about every action movie of the past decade. From Taken to the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, rival films have been desperate to emulate Bourne's gritty, lean and frenetic approach. "What I really love is when all my screenwriter friends started going, 'God, dude, I just took this meeting and all they want me to do is do Bourne!'" says Gilroy, laughing. "It's torture to them."
Wisely, his film doesn't depart from the formula. "It's absolutely true to the Bourne action thing," says Norton, though much of this is thanks to his 41-year-old co-star Renner, who performed many of the stunts - from riding a motorbike in the streets of Manila to running up the side of a house. "He's an amazing movie athlete," says Gilroy. "He learns as fast as any of the stunt guys." Renner looks sheepish. "I do what's necessary," he says, shrugging. "Sometimes I push myself hard. But I don't need to be tortured. I'm not some sort of masochist."
Of course, now Gilroy has solved the problem of how you make a Bourne film without Jason Bourne, there's another question on everybody's lips: will we see a fifth instalment, featuring Cross and Bourne together? "That's where Tony's film is really clever," says Renner. "It allows for Matt and I to jump into a movie as adversaries or to fight against evil, or whatever the heck it may be. It could kind of go wherever. Or everyone could hate it, and maybe they don't make any more." Given Hollywood's thirst for re-invention, that seems highly unlikely.
The Bourne Legacy opens in UAE cinemas today.
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