The Bourne Legacy is a bona fide hit. But maybe that's because audiences don't know what a really solid "double-crossed spy on the run" movie looks like.
In January of this year, director Steven Soderbergh's Haywire opened, starring MMA star Gina Carano as a deadly "private contractor" who's set up by her employer to take the fall for a murder. The film made $19 million in the entire course of its North American theatrical run -- or approximately half of what The Bourne Legacy just made in its opening weekend selling a somewhat similar premise of a badass trying to stay one step ahead of killers, with a frightened civilian often in tow.
Whether it was the January opening date, the hard sell of an unknown woman as an action lead or the general lack of publicity (it was released in some markets, including this one, without press screenings), Haywire went largely unseen. Here's the depressing part: Haywire does nearly everything right that Bourne Legacy does wrong. And here's how:
1) Exposition. The Bourne Legacy features scenes of expository dialogue that feel as though they might never end, including a detailed description of the chemical processes that provided the main character with his enhanced abilities. Haywire throws you head-first into the plot, telling viewers only as much as they need to know, and only when they actually need to know it.
2) Action. Bourne director Tony Gilroy throws a few token set pieces at viewers before really settling in for a high-energy third act -- and even then chops it into the snippets so generally favored in action films. In Haywire, Soderbergh choreographs some of the most brutal hand-to-hand fights in recent cinema, giving a hard-edged physicality to the hero's danger. And he knows how to provide individual moments that show Carano's Mallory actually thinking through the next best course of action.
3) Moments that just put a smile on a movie-lover's face. Over the course of 135 minutes, Bourne provides a grueling "intense" tone that, I suppose, is meant to convey the threat to Cross. Soderbergh keeps Mallory on her toes, as well, but provides a dozen individually terrific moments in just 90 minutes that make you giddy with realizing what a real assured hand behind the camera looks like: a car chase in reverse that comes to an unexpected end; Mallory appearing from nowhere to take down an adversary; the startling opening to her first brawl with someone out to kill her. Haywire is often rough, but that doesn't mean it's not fun, in a way Bourne almost never is.
It's not a shock that a franchise with an established name has a built-in advantage that could get it off to a better start. But Haywire deserves better than to disappear into oblivion while Bourne lumbers toward another inevitable sequel. Haywire is now available on DVD from retailers and your local library. If you want your dose of high-energy international espionage, this is where you're going to find it.