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.