The immensely popular and trailblazing Bourne series — adapted from Robert Ludlum’s spy novels and starring Matt Damon as the titular character — looked dead in the water following the departure of director Paul Greengrass and his star after 2007’s highpoint The Bourne Ultimatum (preferring to collaborate on 2010’s Green Zone), but Universal were understandably reluctant to let the lucrative franchise go. Hence, The Bourne Legacy, an arguably unnecessary but enjoyable enough new installment helmed by Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy, with the reliable Jeremy Renner taking the reigns as another highly capable covert operative. Refreshingly neither a reboot nor a straight sequel, Legacy kicks off a cleverly constructed alternate story within the dense Bourne universe, and while it’s unlikely to offend fans, the film lacks the strong characterisation and hyper-kinetic action sequences of the previous installments and fails to live up to the high expectations set by them, playing more like a solid pilot episode to a new series than a thrilling new installment in the greatest action-thriller franchise of the past decade.
The Bourne Legacy starts off promisingly enough, opening in the remote Alaskan wilderness as the resourceful Aaron Cross (Renner) completes a harsh training exercise in record time, before taking refuge in a remote cabin with a fellow operative (Oscar Isaac) in exile. Through their initially terse and paranoid exchanges, we discover that both are Operation Outcome agents, who require regular meds to stay mentally and physically enhanced. Cross reveals himself to be significantly more chatty and humourous than Jason Bourne, and crucially, he knows exactly who he is. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic shitstorm caused by Bourne — who is never seen, but often alluded to here — is blowing up in New York and Langley, with the exposure of Operation Blackbriar and the Treadstone Project threatening similar CIA clandestine operations. Familiar faces appear briefly — Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney) and Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) — as events from The Bourne Ultimatum run parallel and reveal an even deeper conspiracy. As the trailers suggested, “Jason Bourne is only the tip of the iceberg,” and the powers that be — specifically Retired Adm. Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) and Retired Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) — go into damage control, shutting down the programs at risk to further exposure, including Outcome.
If this information overload sounds a bit overwhelming and confusing, it can be, but Legacy soon picks up as a drone is sent to terminate the unwitting Outcome agents stationed in Alaska — with Cross displaying remarkable survival skills — while multiple agents stationed across the world are quietly dispatched, and a scientist (Željko Ivanek) at one of the CIA’s private research labs is chillingly brainwashed into pulling a gun on his defenseless colleagues, including geneticist and sole survivor Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). Presumed dead and fresh out of meds, Cross is forced to desperately track down a new source, leading him conveniently into the doctor’s now-endangered life and resulting in the two taking flight as fugitives.
Rather than try to mimic Greengrass’ shaky camera and break-neck editing aesthetic, Gilroy — who previously proved his directing chops on Michael Clayton and Duplicity — instead goes for a simpler and more refined style, which some may find relieving. I have nothing against Gilroy and his talented cinematographer Robert Elswit changing things up, but the relentless pace and intensity that made Supremacy and Ultimatum so gripping, urgent and pioneering is sorely lacking here. Legacy looks and feels by the numbers throughout, which is disappointing for a franchise that redefined the action-thriller genre in the 2000s, and aside from a few decent sequences early on, Gilroy rarely displays a command of the kind of breathless action choreography that this film requires. Also lacking is the thrilling mystery and strong motivation at the heart of the Bourne films; Bourne’s existential search for identity and culpability was endlessly engrossing and exciting, while Cross’ search for meds and struggle for survival makes for a significantly less compelling narrative. Gilroy and brother Dan’s original script — the first not to be based on a Ludlum novel — does provide some wonderfully dense, jargon-filled dialogue and tense thrills over the course of the film’s first half, but unfortunately that potential is largely squandered by a predictably action-heavy and formulaic final act, punctuated by an unsatisfactorily abrupt conclusion.
As with the previous installments, Legacy is populated with some great actors who each bring something new to the ever-expanding Ludlum-verse. Norton, once again in scene-stealing form [see also: Moonrise Kingdom], gives a standout performance as Byer, a ruthless, agitated and greying ex-military bureaucrat who believes that the work they engage in is “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” I would have liked to have seen more of him, but let’s hope Byer returns for the next film. Renner makes a fine replacement for Damon, matching him for both physicality and vulnerability, but he perhaps lacks the same authority and magnetism and can’t help but come off as second-best by comparison. It’s a shame that Renner hasn’t quite been able to bring the same level of exciting unpredictability he displayed in The Hurt Locker and The Town to his recent string of action roles, although to be fair he is not given much to work with once the action starts and any early signs of character development are frustratingly not returned to. Weisz is as watchable as always, lending intelligence and depth to an atypical female character for the genre, and sharing some palpable chemistry with Renner. One of the delights of the franchise has been seeing some terrific character actors as agents or “assets” — Clive Owen in Identity; Karl Urban in Supremacy; Édgar Ramírez in Ultimatum — and although Legacy gets it right early on with both Isaac and Ivanek, the implausibly Terminator-esque Manila agent who appears in the final act is played cliché and stiff by Louis Ozawa Changchien.
Unmet expectations and major third act flaws aside, in a year of largely unnecessary, unimaginative and cynical reboots, prequels, sequels and remakes [The Amazing Spider-Man, Prometheus, Men In Black III, Total Recall], it’s both refreshing and admirable that Gilroy has managed to craft an inventive and intelligent spin-off which expands the Bourne universe rather than simply repeating what came before. Legacy is undoubtedly the weakest entry in the franchise — lacking a strong purpose and personality for Cross, the frenetic and dazzling action of Greengrass’ films, and the high stakes of the original trilogy — but the film’s impressive first half shows potential for its future, and I’m intrigued to see the how Gilroy will further expand this paranoid universe of globe-trotting spies and the nefarious powers that be over the course of what will no doubt become another trilogy. Let’s just hope that Gilroy and co. can find a story more compelling and worthy of the Bourne name next time.
Watch the trailer for The Bourne Legacy below.