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Universal Pictures
Jeremy Renner stars in “The Bourne Legacy.”

Bourne movies go Bourne-free

In “The Bourne Legacy,” opening Friday, a feat will be attempted that few have tried and none have achieved.

It’s not the sort of feat that involves jumping from a roof onto a balcony or punching out six TSA agents who don’t know when to leave a tough guy’s shoes alone, even if the airport screeners can be excused somewhat for their fascination with his stiletto heels.

In fact, the crux of this feat might have involved nothing more action-packed than several strokes of a pen.

With “The Bourne Legacy,” a Hollywood studio will attempt to extend a megabucks action franchise’s buck-magnitude without the series’ star or even its main character.

Matt Damon, who played the secret-even-unto-himself agent Jason Bourne in the previous three “Bourne” films, declined an invitation to return for the fourth installment, so the producers and screenwriter decided to create a new main character while retaining the “Bourne” name.

“The Bourne Legacy” features Aaron Cross, an assassin in the mold of Bourne but played by Jeremy Renner.

Judging from the trailers, Damon still “appears” in the film, albeit as a succession of still pictures on various computer screens.

When an actor who has bailed out of an ongoing franchise continues to be evoked by way of still pictures and repurposed footage, it can’t be a good sign.

I seem to recall Lorraine Gary gazing mournfully, perhaps even desperately, at photos of Roy Scheider in “Jaws: The Revenge.”

Iconic roles have been successfully recast, of course, the most obvious example being that of James Bond. But no one has ever tried to make a James Bond movie without James Bond.

Someone did, however, make an Inspector Clouseau movie without Inspector Clouseau and there are many lessons to be learned from the film, the most significant of those being, “Don’t watch this film.”

“Curse of the Pink Panther” was an attempt to prolong a franchise that had lost its star, Peter Sellers, years before when the great British comic and character actor was lured away by a persuasive offer made by the most powerful player in Hollywood at the time: The Grim Reaper.

Ted Wass was cast in “Curse of the Pink Panther” as another bumbling detective named Clifton Sleigh.

Wass had some talents as a physical comedian, but he must have known he faced an uphill battle when it occurred to him that the people he was working for couldn’t come up with a funnier name for him than Clifton Sleigh.

Of course, Steve Martin has since revived the “Pink Panther” franchise with two films that earned high grosses, even if they made many movie critics wish they hadn’t been so hard on Ted Wass.

A sequel as unlikely as “The Bourne Legacy” has required one of the unlikelier ad campaigns in Hollywood history.

Like a cat food company that has decided to swap salmon for sardines, Universal Studios has to let the public know the formula has changed, tout the new flavor and avoid being accused of a bait and switch.

Still, I think it’s inevitable that some people will walk out of the theater angry that they just paid for a Bourne-free “Bourne” film.

“Why,” I can almost hear some of them exclaim, “couldn’t Hollywood have made a Deuce Bigalow-free ‘Deuce Bigalow’ movie instead?”

If “The Bourne Legacy” proves to be a hit, however, it means the “Bourne” series could become the first action franchise in cinematic history that is successful despite the fact that the main character is always missing for some reason.

The possibilities for sequels will be endless at that point.

For example, “The Bourne Matriculation,” in which Bourne is missing because he is spending a semester abroad at the University of Zurich studying hotel, restaurant and travel administration; or “The Bourne Prolongation,” in which Bourne is missing because his flight from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Sioux City, Iowa, has been delayed; and “The Bourne Peregrination,” in which Bourne is missing because he has followed a group of Australian Aboriginal teenagers into the Outback on “walkabout” in an attempt to better appreciate the ways that all living things are connected.

I’ll be holding out for “The Bourne Ubiquity,” in which everyone but Jason Bourne is brainwashed into believing they are Jason Bourne.

For all anyone knows, I may already be perilously close to believing I am Jason Bourne.

With Hollywood behaving as erratically as it does, the only thing that keeps an arts and entertainment reporter sane some days is his stiletto heels.

Steve Penhollow is an arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays. He appears Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, WISE-TV, Channel 33, and WBYR, 98.9 FM to talk about area happenings. Email him at spen@jg.net. A Facebook page for “Rants & Raves” can be accessed at www.facebook.com/pages.

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