Movie Review: ‘The Bourne Legacy’ Fails to Live Up to Its Heritage

July 25, 2012 — 60 Comments

The Bourne Trilogy is one of my favourite movie series of all time. It started with The Bourne Identity, which was a great action spy story with a fantastic hook. The Bourne Supremacy brought in director Paul Greengrass, whose handheld shaky-cam style has come to define many action films for good or ill ever since. Greengrass came back to cap off the Jason Bourne story with The Bourne Ultimatum, which, going with only a basic outline of a script, stripped everything down to a series of amazing action sequences while maintaining some extremely poignant character and emotional beats. I guess it was too much to hope that the suits at Universal would let those three films stand on their own as a nearly perfect, complete story.

The Bourne Legacy takes that third word in its title very seriously. Writer-director Tony Gilroy, who’s also credited with writing the previous films, seemingly owes everything to three sources: his own screenplay for The Bourne Identity, Paul Greengrass’ directorial grittiness and Matt Damon. It’s a shame, then, that despite trying so hard to honour that ‘legacy’, Legacy brings none of those elements to the table in any kind of satisfactory way, either literally or in spirit. What might have been the start of a thrilling new story set in the Bourne universe instead owes a debt it simply can’t pay back.

It helps to have seen the original trilogy, particularly Ultimatum, to follow what’s going on in this film. The Bourne Legacy is partially set during the events of Ultimatum, and its plot is directly informed by that film. In case you’ve forgotten, part of the plot in Ultimatum deals with Bourne’s attempts at making the Treadstone and Blackbriar operations, of which he was an agent, public. The immediate fallout of this, as presented by The Bourne Legacy, is a scramble by officials at the CIA to scrap a third program, Operation Outcome. As we come to learn, Outcome went a step further than its predecessors by attempting to genetically enhance its field agents.

The plot of The Bourne Legacy kicks off from that attempt to scrap Outcome, which includes assassinating all the field agents. Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, an Outcome agent who’s lucky enough to figure out that he’s being hunted, and uses his smarts to avoid getting killed. The rest of the film involves Cross teaming up with Marta, played by Rachel Weisz, a doctor who helped administer the drugs for his genetic enhancement. His mission is to make those enhancements permanent so he no longer has to worry about relying on the meds. In the meantime, Eric Byer, played by Edward Norton, is a CIA operations manager attempting to find and eliminate Cross before any Senate hearings might unearth evidence of the program.

The Bourne Legacy, true to its title, follows the basic template of the first and second Bourne films. You’ve got a field agent from a secret program who goes missing. He mostly just wants to live his own life and mind his own business, but jerks at the CIA are trying to kill him. He’s trying to further his own ends while simultaneously avoiding various targeted assassinations. Where the other Bourne sequels were very similar in structure, the overall plot was continuous and thus always interesting. By introducing us to a new character only to repeat that same plot, right down to an ending ripped right from the first film, The Bourne Legacy can’t escape feeling like a cheap cash-in on a great franchise.

It doesn’t help matters that Aaron Cross falls completely flat as a character. That isn’t to say Renner does a poor job. He’s perfectly fine, bringing the same magnetic charm as he did in The Hurt Locker, Mission: Impossible 4 and The Avengers. In fact, it’s kind of refreshing to have a lead character in this film who’s got a personality that’s essentially the opposite of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. What fails Renner isn’t his performance, but the writing. The film lacks a hook. The plot works, but it has no reason to exist except so that this movie can exist.

The Bourne Identity had a great hook. Jason Bourne wakes up with amnesia and only a few clues about his identity. Then, suddenly, people are trying to kill him. The rest of the film is a great mix of avoiding death and trying to understand this mystery of who Bourne is and why he’s being targeted. The Bourne Legacy has the attempted assassinations down, but it completely lacks a mystery or motivation for its main character. The only reason we’re following Aaron Cross on this adventure is that the CIA accidentally failed to kill him. There’s a tiny mystery in terms of the purpose of the medication, but that’s not nearly enough to hold interest, and the film doesn’t do a good job of explaining why Cross is so insistent about not running out of pills. It’s basically the plot of The Bourne Identity without the hooks that made that film and its characters worth caring about.

The other major issue is that Tony Gilroy brings nothing interesting directorially. Basically, he copies the gritty style of Paul Greengrass, right down to the shaky-camera action sequences, but with the slightly more cinematic scope of Doug Liman’s work on the original. The result is a bland movie, both in looks and in action. The action is particularly disappointing. Greengrass, for all his camera shakes, managed to make it feel like the audience was right there in the middle of the action. Even more impressively, he used the style for both visceral and emotion effect, exemplified perfectly by the hand-to-hand fight in the apartment from The Bourne Ultimatum. The action here has none of that verve. It’s simply poorly staged, poorly shot, poorly edited and with no emotional resonance to speak of.

The lack of emotional resonance highlights the problem at the heart of The Bourne Legacy. Not only does it feel like an unnecessary exercise, it offers little in the way of intriguing plot or character. There’s nothing to care about. It’s all a bunch of story beats and action with no purpose. Worse still, the film constantly calls attention to its failures by referencing Jason Bourne. I think the name ‘Bourne’ is mentioned about five billion times in the film, and all it does is remind us that we really cared about Jason and we don’t give a rat’s ass about Aaron Cross or Marta or Operation Outcome or any of it. The Bourne Legacy tries so desperately to live up to its heritage, but it’s ultimately an unnecessary, uninteresting, uninspired, tangential follow-up to a far better series.

60 responses to Movie Review: ‘The Bourne Legacy’ Fails to Live Up to Its Heritage

    Sinister Dreams July 25, 2012 at 10:28 am

    I am glad you reviewed this new Bourne movie, and you pretty much said exactly what I expected of it. I was pretty surprised they decided to continue on such a great trilogy, and I felt it was a little unnecessary. I’ll probably still watch it though when it comes to the base theater. 🙂


      It’s not a terrible movie. Just kind of a wasted film. Probably really good airplane viewing.


      how could they review b4 the release of movie……….


        Movies are always viewed by entertainment guru’s b4 hitting theaters. They set the hooks before,”we viewers”
        a chance to decide,will it be good a view or or a bad view.


          I’m not an entertainment guru or even a film critic. I love the franchise, and when a friend called me up to say “I just won tickets to see The Bourne Legacy tonight” I was excited and jumped at the chance.

          The only difference between me and the “we viewers” you speak of is that I was lucky enough to see it earlier than normal. I thought the film was disappointing. You may or may not feel the same way. That’s how these things work.


    Saved me a ticket. Like you, The Bourne Trilogy is one of the greats. Why mess with it has always been my question.

    Still, I was slightly curious about it. With this review, no more. The trilogy stands.

    Speaking of reviews, still very curious about your Rises review. Can we expect it soon?


      The trilogy indeed stands. I love those movies.

      As for The Dark Knight rises, at the moment I don’t plan on reviewing it, though I might have an essay about it later. For now, you can check out the last episode of my podcast, The justAtadcast, for a verbal review/discussion about the film.


    I’ll be seeing this one despite your excellent review. I need to see this, like someone has to look at a car accident when driving by.


    I dunno why but I was never too into the Bourne movies to begin with. Saw the first two, but never had the urge to watch the third. I think Renner is a fine actor, but not as a head-liner. To me, he will always be that lousy villain from SWAT – even though I enjoyed his performances in Hurt Locker, Avengers and The Town.


      I’d highly recommend the third film. All three films follow sort of a similar structure, even with variances in the plot, but the third film for me hits the perfect balance of streamlined plot, great character beats and some surprisingly deft emotional touches.


      You stole the words right outta my mouth… “lousy villa from swat.” I’m not a big fan either. The only way this movie could have been any good is to keep Matt Damon. I hate when they change characters in a series, even tho its a different character in the Trilogy, and not Jason Bourne.


        Although, I totally wouldn’t mind if they’d switched Damon with Affleck hahaha! And then in the 6th film, both Damon and Affleck go head-to-head.


    I was a fan of the original Bourne trilogy myself, and odds are I’ll end up seeing this still.
    I’m still happy to see the series being continued even if the reception isn’t great.


      I’m sure if nothing else the movie will entertain you. I didn’t hate it or anything, though it’s paced a little weird. It feels like the story takes 90 minutes just to kick in, and then it’s rushed once that happens. I checked my watch a few too many times for a movie like this.


    your review is bad not the movie… still think bourne legacy is great..


    Heard only positive reactions about Legacy before your review.


    I was completely excited to hear of a new Bourne movie and so very disappointed to hear Jason Bourne’s not in it…waste of film. I wont be wasting my $$


    Really liked the review, you are clearly a critic worth reading, I’m thinking now the new Bourne movie will be in the same vein as Quantum of Solace and I loved Quantum


    I believe Paul Greengrass called this project “The Bourne Redundancy” and after reading your review he seems to have it right all along.

    EmeraldCityGuy July 31, 2012 at 8:22 am

    The second half of the trailer left me with a “say it ain’t so” feeling. What I loved about the Bourne trilogy was that it looked so real. You have to walk into action films with a certain level of suspended disbelief (outrunning fireballs, explosions, etc.). I loved that the Bourne movies made Bourne so “human,” thereby lowering your required level of disbelief. The perfect example was the car chase in the first movie – it was realistic. In the second half of the new trailer, you see Bourne jumping off a 3 story building and landing on top of a guy who watched him (in Wile E. Coyote fashion mind you) fall on top of him, then give him the standard kung fu movie “death twist” with his feet. Bourne was, of course, unhurt. He also slid, with a passenger on a motorcycle, perfectly down the rail of a set of stone steps. But what raised a red flag the highest for me was hearing “you’ve had alterations to 3 different chromosomes.” That sounded like a license to give him superpowers. Bourne had imaginable skills. Cross seems to have received superhero skills. I loved the first three movies, but if I want to watch a superhero, I’d rather watch Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. At least watching her makes me think less about the plot. I do hope my perceptions are incorrect.


      The gene-alteration is less of an issue than you might think. As the trailer shows, Cross’ physical abilities are more “enhanced” than Bourne’s, but it doesn’t come off as too completely impossible. Jason Bourne did some pretty crazy stuff, too. The genetic stuff in this seems to be more about ingraining those abilities in the agent, rather than relying purely on the training to get them to that level.


    Hmmm other reviews I’ve read have been very positive, even from those of Damon-Bourne fans, but yours was very thorough, glad you didn’t hate it! Just maybe–disappointed? Honestly, how could you not be, that trilogy was pretty damn near perfect! ANY addition is going to come up short (it’s just to what extent). However, some of the things you said have stuck out to me as a little odd. You said “the plot works, but it has no reason to exist except so that this movie can exist” and that “there’s nothing to care about (plot/character wise).” I thought the movie’s purpose was to widen the scope of the Bourne universe (hence Outcome…what else might there be above that? Who else is pulling the strings?). I think that’s the hook, but a much bigger one than the amnesic spy approach. Less intimate but has infinitely more possibilities, including more Damon in the future. I hope this was portrayed in the movie like it has been suggested.

    I feel it’s tempting to think that this movie “exists to exist” because those are many people’s preconcieved notions going into the film (that it’s a cash grab–I thought so at first too). It might be easy to look for those themes in the movie as a result (like a confirmation bias–so of course the characters won’t be well developed, the action will be wasted, the filming will suck–because we’re inclined to believe it is solely living off the word “Bourne”, and will in no way be close to the amazingness that we expect from the franchise). In your intro, it sounded like you never wanted this movie to happen in the first place (to be fair–I was with you until I saw casting and plot outline). So, I’m just challenging your review a bit, which is still good; but while I respect a lot of your critiques, they seem to vascillate between the strict comparison of how un-Bourne like Legacy is and how much Legacy was too much like Bourne. Hell, I haven’t seen it, but hopefully theres a bigger picture here than just that? Like what could happen to the series due to the discovery of how deadly Outcome (any whatever is above that) may be? I will be disappointed too if this isn’t portrayed. Also, I’m personally a little relieved for no more strict shakey-cam, always made me sick!

    Lastly (I promise): Bourne totally set the standard for the modern action film, so let’s just keep in mind it might not even be fair to compare the new movie and the old ones side-to-side, which it sounds like in this review, but instead to see it as a continuation (or legacy) of the latter.

    Some good points, some food for thought. Glad you didn’t think it was absolutely terrible! But I’ll still be seeing it come August 10th. If it ends up being an airplane movie, then at least it will save me from re-runs of Failure to Launch. Never prayed for a plane crash before until being stuck in the middle seat on a 4-hour flight with that…


      Go see it and then come tell me what you thought.

      You’re right that it’s not necessarily fair to compare this film to its predecessors, but in this case I couldn’t help it simply because the film does so much to recall those previous films. It’s set during the events of the third film, with plenty of flashes to that film, and Jason Bourne is mentioned constantly throughout. Also, the story of this film is a direct result of the events in the third film. The film does so much to bring those other films to mind that it forgets to be its own thing.

      When I say that the movie feels like it has no reason to exist, I’m referring directly to the story, which comes about by happenstance, without any good hook. There’s another field agent in the film played by Oscar Isaac. With a slight alteration, the film could easily have been about him. There’s nothing particularly special about Cross, and there’s nothing special about what happens to him. They try to kill him, and he happens to survive and he’s running out of his meds and so there’s a plot. It lacks weight. It lacks intrigue. It’s not terrible, but it feels low stakes and unmotivated. Why make a big, action, spy-thriller that feels like it has no motivation?

      Oh well.


      It’s about time soemnoe wrote about this.


    I think the movie was great. Yes, I have seen the movie. Though, I am really sure for the outcome of this movie, but it’s not bad. I actually liked it. Clearly I am not some fine critic, but if I may say something negative about the movie it’s the ending, I feel like the movie was so short, that it ended like that. I’m sure though, that there will be another installment.


      The ending was pretty rushed. It was kind of like very little happened during the first 90 minutes and then EVERYTHING happened in the last 30. But at least that section had action, which made it enjoyable.


    This film hasn’t been released yet. Rotten tomatoes has ZERO reviews. I have never heard of this reviewer or this website. Hey maybe reviewer is correct. However you are a fool to believe his take. Next Friday you will figure out yourself whether the film is any good. Take a big grain of salt with this alleged review.


      Rotten Tomatoes has no reviews because critics are under embargo. I’m not a critic. I saw the film at an early screening and the film disappointed me. I’m offering my take on the film and why I don’t think it’s very good. You don’t need to take my review with a grain of salt, but do remember that I’m just one person and this is just my opinion. You may love the film, and I hope you do, because it’s not fun to watch movies and not enjoy them.


        I will still see it because I loved the original trilogy and am a big fan of Renners work.But your review was helpful, insightful, intelligently written and was very classy.I wish more people would treat those who disagree with them with the same kindness that you have shown sir.


          Thanks. I can tell you that so far, most reactions I’ve heard have been along the same lines as mine, though generally more positive about it. You know, solid action movie.


    Saw it and totally agree with you, “unnecessary, uninteresting, uninspired.”


      “unnecessary, uninteresting, uninspired.”

      Was pretty much my reaction to Ultimatum and if anyone deserves credit for the immediacy of the action scenes in the second and third films it’s Dan Bradley not Paul Greengrass – I’m still interested in seeing this as I think Renner is a far more likely action hero than Damon ever was, Norton and Weisz are always worth watching and I hugely enjoyed Gilroy’s previous directorial efforts.


        Dan Bradley, you’re right, is an unsung hero, but I think Greengrass brought a very specific style to his sequels, and it happens to be a style I love. But yeah, it looks like we just disagree on that. I know a lot of people who can’t stand what Greengrass brought to the series.


    If you are not a film critic, then why pretend to be one and ruin the chances of the movie?? Just because you got the chance to see the movie before everyone, doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for everyone else. If even one person decides to not see this movie because of your (so called) review, then you will have direly misused your privilege to view the movie before the release. The least you could have done is wait till the official release to write this article..


      I’m not a film critic in that I’m neither trained, nor do I generally work professionally. I still write reviews and I still have opinions, and in this case I shared them. It’s not okay to write this review before the movie is released, why? Because it’s negative and might dissuade a couple people from seeing it? First of all, I doubt that my single review would have any effect. Secondly, would you have less of a problem if I’d written a positive review? I’m not ruining the movie for anyone, I’m merely writing my own, personal thoughts about the film.


    I’ve only seen Identity, but that film was so great because of character complexity. It’s too bad this film doesn’t have the same. Good review!


    Anyway guys just see The Bourne Legacy. I think it’s worth seeing:)


    I thought your review had a lot of depth and explained well why you were not so hot on it. I will see it and probably like it. I have the ability (or non-ability) to not look too deep and take movies for what they are in the moment. Seen very few movies I didn’t think were at least ok.
    I too loved the Bourne movies. They were so good that almost anything that was put out there that didn’t involve the same characters is bound to take some heat.
    This weekend I will once again turn off my brain and go enjoy a good action movie.


    Just saw the movie last night. It was infusing to follow and you wanted Matt Damon to step in and save the day (movie) but he never did. On e the movie got interesting in Manilla it ends rather abruptly and without resolution or understanding.
    It’s worth seeing but it was a disappointment compared to the others.

    nana yaw pobee-gyamfi December 2, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    a must watch movie

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