Bourne again

You’ve got a successful franchise. Three films that have redefined the contemporary thriller. And your lead says he wants to stop at three: that’s plenty for him.

What do you do?

If it’s a Bond movie, it’s simply a question of renewing your star, getting a fresh face in. The fans are used to that.

For followers of the other J.B. – Jason Bourne – matters are more problematic. Matt Damon definitely didn’t want to do any more. But the beauty of a thriller with its roots in amnesia is the opportunity for fresh secrets to pop out of a murky past. Which in this case amount to Bourne being just one of a whole batch of genetically monkeyed-with superspies. So, pop another one out of the fridge, and there you’ve got the makings of a sequel.

The familiar face of Matt Damon is replaced by the increasingly visible one of Jeremy Renner, whose role as Hawkeye in Avengers helped secure him a place in the A list that this film consolidates. His face is weathered and interesting, handsome but approachable. And he’s got the requisite levels of fitness needed for a story that variously sees him brawling, scurrying up mountains, running from people who wish him dead, and being the one driver even more chaotic than the locals as he powers a motorbike through crowds in the Philippines.

What takes all this to another level is the assured direction (and writing) of Tony Gilroy. Rather than heighten the heroic nature of these deeds, Gilroy creates a level of almost documentary realism about sequences that in many cases would be played as genre staples. When a rogue scientist shoots his colleagues in a lab, it feels like we’re there with his victims through every agonising second. You believe it when people hide, feel for them whn they’re caught, root for our heroine to get out in one piece.

And she does because – it’s that kind of film, after all. We’re seduced into seeing it as something else through the commitment to credible actions and emotions. With that groundedness established, it makes it easier to soar into the more fantastic elements of the story. Turns out Renner’s batch of superagents aren’t the only players in town. There’s some new ones, even more deadly – you can tell by the bad guy’s shades and facial hair just how sinister he is.

Frankly, a superspy being pursued by an even more super superspy…it’s the stuff of Jean Claude Van Damme films, isn’t it? Only, by treating the story as if it happens in the world we inhabit, and not genreland, it takes on a weight and urgency that trashy action films don’t have. Helps too that the familiar Bourne shakycam is frequently in evidence, bringing that sense of right here right now with it. And the lack of a bombastic soundtrack further roots what’s happening.

Actually, if you’re looking for a counterpart to the Bourne films it’s not so much Bond and Jean Claude as the thrillers of Luc Besson. His ultra-styled yarns – Nikita and Transporter are two of my faves -  present viewers with a world of visual sophistication and a level of wit rather than the usual sledgehammer approach that’s taken to action thrillers. There’s a restless intelligence and playfulness at work, which aren’t necessarily the qualities you see when you’re watching The Bourne Legacy but are necessarily part of Gilroy’s approach to be able to devise and deliver the results that he achieves.

Interesting. The achievement of Bourne then is that the films have distilled naturalism into a style that can applied to material which it’s not normally associated with. In doing so, they’ve changed the vocabulary of the action thriller in ways that the old guard – James Bond in particular – has had to sit up and pay attention to.