Going into this film, I considered the Bourne movies to be an extremely rare breed among film franchises: each sequel was better than the movie it followed. The fantastic Bourne Ultimatum even wrapped up the Matt Damon trilogy with an ending that dovetailed perfectly with the first shot of the series. So when I heard they wanted to make another Bourne film (uh-oh) without director Paul Greengrass (uh-oh!) or star Matt Damon (UH-OH!!!), I was, to put it mildly, skeptical. After all, how can you make a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne?
Well, it turns out you really don’t.
It’s a shame because I’d talked myself into the idea that there was plenty of new territory for the Bourne franchise to explore in a spinoff/sequel/reboot. Instead of merely using the previous films as a jumping off point, the shadow of everyone’s favorite amnesiac assassin looms too largely over too much of The Bourne Legacy.
I actually think it made sense for Legacy to use the fallout from Ultimatum as the basis for its plot. However, the decision to have so much of the action in Legacy overlap with the events in Ultimatum had the unfortunate side effect of making me wish I were watching the vastly superior Ultimatum instead. This is especially true because — after yet another callback to that famous opening image of Bourne’s lifeless body floating in the water — The Bourne Legacy gets off to a deadly dull start. (Star Jeremy Renner is stuck alone in the Alaskan wilderness and doesn’t say a word for the first 15-20 minutes, while humorless power players stand around purposefully furrowing their brows in a series of scenes that must have been downright incomprehensible for anyone who hadn’t seen the previous movies.)
When we first meet our protagonist (Renner) during a training mission, we don’t know anything about him other than the fact that he possesses a high tolerance for cold weather and near superhuman leaping ability. We eventually learn his name is Aaron Cross. Cross is a government operative and a member of Operation Outcome, a black ops program along the lines of Treadstone or Operation Blackbriar with one significant difference: whereas Treadstone focused on behavioral conditioning, Outcome scientists have been employing biochemical and genetic alterations to make their soldiers stronger, faster and smarter. As Bourne is exposing Blackbriar’s dirty dealings in public, the order is given to terminate all similar black ops programs (including Outcome) to avoid an even bigger scandal. Cross and Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), an Outcome scientist, each survive assassination attempts and go on the run together.
In recent years, Renner has stolen movies from Ben Affleck (The Town) and Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), picked up an Oscar nomination while headlining a Best Picture winner (The Hurt Locker) and he’s one of The Avengers. However, this is the actor’s first chance to prove he can carry a big-budget action flick by himself, and I’m sad to say his grade is a big fat “Incomplete.” The actor brings edge, a considerable amount of charm and more outward humor than Damon was allowed to bring to the table, but the Cross character turns out to be more of a blank slate than the amnesiac. In other words, there’s absolutely nothing interesting about Cross (other than the fact that he can beat up wolves and scale a three-story house with greater ease than you or I climb a flight of stairs). Making Cross, in essence, a super soldier — rather than a man trying to reconcile a dark past with his hopes for a fresh start he’s not sure he deserves — also makes it more difficult for us to connect with our new hero.
Renner does reasonably well with the little he’s given, and the same is true for Weisz. Actually, Weisz is probably given even less to work with, since her overwhelmed character is in constant need of rescue. (Except for one satisfying moment when Marta saves the both of them.) Weisz’s best achievement is not letting Marta completely slip into damsel-in-distress mode. The actress conveys both strength and resolve while developing a low-key chemistry with Renner. Meanwhile, poor Edward Norton — once considered the best actor of his generation — follows in the footsteps of great actors like Chris Cooper (Bourne Identity), Brian Cox (Bourne Identity/Supremacy), Joan Allen (Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum) and David Strathairn (Bourne Ultimatum) as the sap who’s perpetually one step behind their highly-skilled prey. (Allen and Strathairn have cameos in Legacy.) I actually thought Norton, who always radiates “smartest guy in the room” intelligence, was a really good choice for this type of role. The fact that his Eric Byer is so even-keeled could have been chilling — just a government lackey toeing the company line, with no regard for human life — but instead comes off as bland, forgettable and a waste of the actor’s ample talents.
Tony Gilroy had a hand in writing the three previous Bourne movies and takes over directorial duties from Greengrass. In my opinion, this winds up being a much bigger downgrade than Damon-to-Renner. I’m sure many Bourne fans won’t miss Greengrass’s relentlessly shaky camera, but even those detractors would probably admit Legacy is missing the pulse-quickening sense of urgency the director brought to the last two films. In his stead, we get Gilroy, who is directing his first big-time action romp after helming the acclaimed Michael Clayton and the not-nearly-as-acclaimed Duplicity.
Besides the disheartening fact that the best stunts the movie has to offer are showcased in the trailer/TV commercials, Gilroy is generally not up to the task of staging or pacing an exciting action film. (At least not yet.) The climactic motorcycle chase is ok, but probably not as thrilling as it seemed on paper. A chilling workplace shooting and a confrontation at Marta’s house were infinitely more impressive. Still, the biggest problem is that a handful of scenes are overly drawn out and talky to the point that you can practically feel Gilroy the Director refusing to trim or cut some Gilroy the Screenwriter’s material. (Gilroy co-wrote the script with his brother Dan.) I don’t have a problem with talky scenes — I admired the meticulous way Byer’s team tracked Cross and Dr. Shearing to Manila, even if it slowed the movie down a bit — as long as they’re interesting or have some sort of charge. Unfortunately, that isn’t really the case here, and these scenes are only occasionally broken up by underwhelming action sequences. To make matters worse, the movie’s ending (once again parroting The Bourne Identity) comes rather abruptly and leaves the door open for a sequel I’m not sure most people are going to want.
When the idea for this project came up, I was concerned they were going to use the Bourne brand name to sucker people into watching something completely different. The great cast (Renner and Co. deserve a better movie) and solid trailer eventually got me excited. Sadly, it turns out they used the Bourne brand name to sucker people into watching what we’ve already seen, but executed at a considerably poorer level.
So much for being able to say every Bourne movie was better than the one before.