It looked like doom and gloom for the distinguished Bourne series when, despite director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon declining to do a fourth installment, the studio announced plans to proceed anyway. Sure there may have been a half-dozen James Bonds over the years without that franchise losing too much lustre, but the Bourne movies are not James Bond movies. They're darker and more serious and tell a specific, if ever expanding, tale of banal badness done in various rumpled rooms in various anonymous buildings. The franchise survived the director hand-off from Doug Liman's Bourne Identity to Greengrass' Supremacy and Ultimatum, but to continue on without the ever-reliable Damon, to shake things up that grandly, well, it sounded like a disaster.  Proceed the studio did though, hiring steadily rising actor Jeremy Renner to play a whole new superspy/killing machine and moving longtime Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy into the director's chair. And, surprising as it is to say, it's awfully good that they kept going, as the latest movie in the series, The Bourne Legacy, as different as it may be, is a terrific continuation of a spectacularly thrilling series.

Set mostly concurrently with the action of The Bourne Ultimatum (which I would recommend you rewatch before seeing this), Legacy concerns another government-altered secret agent, this one named Aaron Cross, who, unlike Jason Bourne, knows exactly who he is. He's a willing guinea pig in these shadowy government genetics experiments, and the film opens with him doing some intense training in the picturesquely wintry wilds of Alaska. Meanwhile in Washington and New York, Jason Bourne is (off-screen) wreaking havoc and exposing things, sending various old white guys with a lot to lose into panic mode. One such old white guy, played with his usual Santa growl by Stacy Keach, enlists the help of a sinister fellow named Byer (Edward Norton), who works for an unnamed agency and has extensive knowledge of all the iterations of this top secret super-soldier project. Deciding it's best to shut down the program rather than keep it going and risk exposure, Byer makes a few calls and, well, the program's assets get shut down. It's the first of several moments in this film in which the bureaucratic ease with which human lives are ordered extinguished hints at a deeper political meaning. These people may wrap the business up in technical terms to lessen the humanity of it all, but they are still very much killing humans, with all the ease and everydayness of sending a fax. Or, ahem, remotely piloting a drone. 

We encounter that same theme at least twice more, particularly when we meet Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a brilliant (we're assuming) scientist who monitors a group of these human experiments with a cold and technical fascination. Trouble for her is, she's a part of the program as much as any of the soldiers, and thus, when things go haywire, must be dealt with in similar fashion. We come to realize just what that means in one of the film's two truly terrifying sequences, a prolonged scene of carnage that, in all of its simplicity and literalness, feels harrowingly on-topic in these recent rampage times. The other scary scene also involves Weisz, but I won't tell you what it is lest I spoil its terrible surprise. Throughout all of this, Weisz, one of the most appealing actresses working today, is trembly but present, frightened but grounded. It's a joy to watch her take an active role in a big tent-pole thriller with such grace and commitment. Compare her fully realized, actualized character to that of, say, Jessica Biel in last week's Total Recall, and the differences couldn't be more stark. Weisz is given concrete things to do here, which I suspect is why she agreed to play "the girl" in an action film in the first place. 

Of course eventually Aaron and Marta meet up and go on the lam together, though interestingly enough their quest, unlike Bourne's, is not explicitly aimed at exposing or unearthing any conspiracies or collusions. There's a much simpler purpose of flight to their mission; this is a chase movie with only a little mystery sprinkled throughout, and for Renner's first outing in the lead, that's just fine. The chase eventually takes us to the crowded streets and claustrophobically narrow alleyways of Manila, where Gilroy stages two set pieces — one of mounting suspense, the other of frenetic action — with the ease and invention of a pro. This is only Gilroy's third film as a director, and his first real action movie, but he's well in command of an array of talents, chief among them a keen awareness of space and physics. While some specific beats and moments may get lost in the jumble of shaky-cam lurching and jerking, we are always brought confidently back to center, sufficiently energized by what we've just seen. The closeness of the camerawork, the intimate scope, pulls us into the picture, each punch and kick and crash and near-miss thundering into us as if we were standing right next to it. It's rare to feel so immersed in the fluidity of an action scene; oftentimes they are too stage-y or overly rigged, but not so in this Bourne outing. We are thrown into the fray with an assured naturalism, and thus everything feels bracingly real, even though wild things are happening.

The film's moments of quiet are well-handled too. Aaron Cross is more affable and colloquial than Jason Bourne, and Renner plays him with a meaty focus that gives way occasionally to laid-back humor. He and Weisz have smart, mature chemistry, which the script never allows them to overindulge. It's nice to see a big summertime action thriller with two over-forty-year-olds in the leads, especially when they are as cool and centered as Renner and Weisz. The film overall is impeccably cast, with Norton doing his best caustic weasel, Oscar Isaac giving off an alluring hint of mystery as another super soldier, and, in one mesmerizing scene, downtown theater staple Elizabeth Marvel playing wonderfully against type. Keen casting has always been one of the particular strengths of these films; they're big action movies put together by cerebral folks who can assemble a perfectly calibrated and resourceful crew.

One of the weaknesses of the series, which pops up again here, is the tangle of conspiracies and coverups that is at the Bourne mythology's core. While the world of Treadstone and Pam Landy and all that has always been intriguing, it can get a bit heavy and overblown for a two-hour thriller. There's a bigger tapestry being woven with all of this, meaning this likely won't be the final Bourne movie, but that larger picture can be hard to appreciate or put into context while in the middle of any one of these breakneck-paced films. To that end, The Bourne Legacy ends a bit too abruptly, before we have really even addressed all the back-room maneuvering that fills the opening thirty minutes of the film. And thus, though the movie is a hearty 135 minutes long, it feels only like a first half. That's a dimly frustrating note to end on, to send the audience out not still vibrating with adrenalin but slightly unsatisfied and hungry for more. Upon leaving the theater, I immediately wanted to see the next movie in the series, which is a testament to both the expert strengths of the film and to its disappointingly sudden conclusion. Still, The Bourne Legacy is probably the most exciting experience I've had at the movies this summer. It's a sturdy, nervy success. Which is a good thing for everyone, because we all know what happens when someone does wrong by Jason Bourne.

 

*****

Bringing a similar intelligence and grownupness to the relationship sex comedy, the new Meryl Streep/Tommy Lee Jones couples therapy film Hope Springs hums with unexpected nuance and depth. While the setup is mostly a big bawdy joke — an old married couple wants to learn how to be sexy again — the details of the execution turn out to be richly humane and well rendered. This is a marriage drama masquerading as a sex comedy, which, exhaustingly inundated with sex comedies as we are, is just fine by me.

Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold Soames, an Omaha couple that's been married a little over thirty years and that has settled into a sexless, ho-hum routine of eat, work, eat, TV, sleep, day in and day out. They no longer sleep in the same bedroom, Arnold has something wrong with his back, and barely acknowledge one another beyond talking about mundane practicalities like what's for dinner and what needs fixing around the house. While Arnold seems content to carry on in this deadened way until, well, the grave, probably, Kay is yearning for something more. The film begins with a cold open in which Kay primps herself in the mirror before trying to seduce Arnold, only to completely fail to get his attention. The desperate hopefulness on Kay's face collapses into weary resignation, setting the tone for a movie that is decidedly more serious than the preview image of Meryl Streep contemplating a banana suggests.

But contemplate a banana she does, as Kay proactively books the couple for a week with a marriage guru named Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), who brings couples up to his small Maine town and puts them through intensive therapy to get to the heart of their problems. Arnold initially balks at the idea of paying so much money to talk to a stranger about uncomfortable things, but eventually agrees to go after a coworker scares him with a vision of what divorced life really looks like. So they travel to the quaint Maine town (Connecticut plays the role well) and begin the process, Kay timid but trying, Arnold stony and unresponsive. Dr. Feld gives them nightly assignments meant to help them regain their sexuality, which provide most of the bigger awkward laughs in this at-times unbearably awkward movie. Nothing gets too dirty, but the movie does go there more than you might think a glossy August comedy would. Luckily the frank sexual matter is handled with adult wit and maturity; it's not the sex that's funny, it's that Kay and Arnold are so afraid of it.

Streep and Jones are a well-matched pair, each bringing a level of texture and idiosyncrasy to roles that, in less capable hands, would be flat bores. (Imagine if this movie starred Tim Allen and Rene Russo, was the scenario I posed to a friend.) It probably needs no repeating, but boy are those two people good actors. Streep brings her voice up to a mousey near-squeak and drops a few Gs to approximate a kind of Midwestern folksiness, and perches herself primly on the therapist's sofa, as if in a waiting room for something else. You don't see all the acting that Streep is doing right away, but she's playing a very particular person here, and it's prodigiously done. The typic Jones gruffness that he brings to things like No Country For Old Men is a bit softer here, perhaps only by dint of the fact that he's not playing a law enforcement officer in this one. The script, by Game of Thrones writer (!!) Vanessa Taylor, gives Jones lots of comfy specificity to work with -- grumping over the price of a tuna melt, struggling with a pull out sofa -- that he settles into with organic ease. These are two very believable characters, ones who might, just might, actually exist in your own childhood home.

The rhythms of the movie — from reluctance, to progress, to roadblock, to conclusion — are pretty familiar, and the sexual politics ultimately prove a bit retro and normative, but all told Hope Springs is a charmingly bright and with-it and poignant little movie. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), besides laying on far too thick a coat of indicating music choices throughout, does a nice job of creating a world that feels lived-in and true. The production design on the Soames' house in particular is note-perfect, with all the middle-upper-middle class trappings in full homey display. All of the film's small and exact details — from design, to well-tuned lines, to particular facial tics — are what make the bigger picture work. Which, y'know, might be a metaphor for marriage or something.