April 2021

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

DIRECTOR: Tony Gilroy

CAST: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Zeljko Ivanek, Oscar Isaac, Corey Stoll


Considering that the total box office gross for the first three Bourne films is nearly $1 billion, the temptation was too much to resist for Universal Pictures to greenlight a fourth installment, even when director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon were uninterested in returning (Greengrass dismissively referred to a fourth film as “The Bourne Redundancy”). Universal tried to work their way around this not by recasting Jason Bourne, but introducing a new character within the same “universe”, but their approach was flawed (in my opinion, forging onward with more Bournes without Damon was a dubious prospect to begin with). While recasting the lead every few movies works for, say, the James Bond series, the Bourne trilogy was not stand-alone episodes, but one continuing story. The Bourne Legacy cannot stand on its own apart from its predecessors. Familiarity with the events of particularly The Bourne Ultimatum is necessary. The audience is invested in Jason Bourne’s journey, and having “Bourne” in the title without Bourne actually being in the movie feels like a cheat. Having him incessantly mentioned every ten minutes and flashing a still photograph only further feels like a tease. Had this ended up paying off in some way, even with a Damon cameo, it might have helped matters, but it never does. The filmmakers try to have their cake and eat it too by constantly reminding us of Jason Bourne’s existence to make this feel like part of the series, but also get us invested in a new character, but the reminders of Bourne only make Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross feel more like an impostor and prevent the movie from fully succeeding in either direction. It doesn’t have Jason Bourne, but nor does it strike fully out on its own and try to escape from his shadow, and this leaves it a hamstrung and unsatisfactory episode. And even taken on its individual merits, The Bourne Legacy is diverting in the moment, but has narrative issues of its own.

Interestingly, The Bourne Legacy is not a chronological sequel, but takes place simultaneously with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne’s appearance in New York and his blowing the lid off Treadstone/Blackbriar’s dirty laundry is about to give various government officials a lot of explaining to do. These include Pentagon bigwigs Colonel Eric Byers (Edward Norton) and Admiral Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) who, in Bourne series fashion, decide to wipe out the entire program in a frantic housecleaning, which does not bode well for the agents and scientists associated with it. One of these, Agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), survives an assassination attempt while on a training mission in Alaska. Returning to the States seeking a refill of the pills that enhance his physical performance, intelligence, and pain endurance, Cross winds up on the run with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the lone surviving scientist who can get him his medicine.

the_bourne_legacy_1At 135 minutes, The Bourne Legacy feels longer than necessary. It would be unfair to call it boring, but the pace is markedly less taut and breakneck than its predecessors. The previous films, for the most part, had the good sense to keep things simple and straightforward, but here the pills are used as a MacGuffin, with Marta delivering lengthy exposition in laborious detail about them. The pills, only vaguely referenced before, feel like a contrived, gimmicky plot device to drive Cross and Marta from Point A to Point B. Some plot elements are repetitive. It’s getting a little contrived that just when one shadow agency is dismantled, there is another conveniently hidden until now, to step into the “villain” role. Also, this entire series would have us believe the CIA is filled with stressed out agents whose snap reaction to a crisis is to freak out and order massacres of anyone even remotely connected to the scandal. I hope that’s less-than-accurate, and if not, I at least hope all these agents and scientists get paid well; considering this is about the third time this sort of thing has happened in the series, one wonders if they’re finding it harder to attract new hires.

In comparison to Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross has more modest goals. He’s not trying to take down the shadow agencies targeting him, he just wants to evade them and get his pills. Those disoriented by Paul Greengrass’ choppy, frenetic directing style will at least be pleased to know Tony Gilroy—who has written the screenplay for every Bourne outing and steps into the director’s chair here— directs the action with more clarity, but there’s not as much of it. There are three major action sequences: a battle of wits between Cross and the team operating an unmanned drone in the Alaskan wilderness, a shootout at Marta’s house, and a lengthy foot and car chase in the traffic-clogged streets of the Philippine capital Manila. The first has a level of cleverness, but the second and third, while serviceable, are fairly generic. The movie does not sustain the relentless momentum of its predecessors. While installments 1-3 were able to keep the tension high even in movies that were essentially one long chase, there are times when Legacy drags. There’s not even a good hand-to-hand fight scene. Cross shows some Bourne-style moves to take down a few cops, but there’s no equal adversary to go toe-to-toe with.  Considering Gilroy wrote the first three installments, it’s a little odd here that he seems to have forgotten some of what made them work, but “industry insider” claims of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass being heavily-involved with tweaking and fine-tuning his previous scripts might shed some light on that, and call Gilroy’s competence into question, at least when flying solo.  Maybe he’s running out of places to go with it, or maybe he was held back by trying to give Cross enough development to invest us in his journey.  In any case, The Bourne Legacy has some serious flaws that were not present previously, even ones that have nothing to do with Damon’s absence, showing us how crucial some ingredients are even in a seemingly fairly simple recipe like the Bourne films.

The_Bourne_Legacy_review_gallery_primaryThe Bourne Legacy‘s problems are not the cast’s fault. Jeremy Renner, who makes a capable action hero, is stuck in the thankless role of starring in a movie with “Bourne” in the title without playing Bourne, making him look like an impostor. Renner is fine, but no matter how effective he is, the movie is named “Bourne”, not Cross, and Renner has his work cut out for him trying to get audiences invested in Aaron. Rachel Weisz, sporting an American accent, brings enough depth and emotion to Marta to elevate her beyond just the obligatory female sidekick. In fact, it’s easy to make a case that she’s a more three-dimensional character than the stoic super agent Cross. Renner and Weisz are an adequate duo but they don’t “click” the way Matt Damon and Franka Potente did. The movie tries to hint at some low-key budding romance, but we don’t feel the chemistry between them like we did with Bourne and Marie.  Edward Norton doesn’t get much to do besides stand around staring at monitors looking stressed and intense.  Also, like most of the Bourne series’ antagonists—with the possible exception of Brian Cox’s shady Ward Abbott—Byers is an overzealous patriot obsessed with national security, not really “evil”, so he’s not even a very hissable nemesis, and he and Cross never come face-to-face or even directly interact apart from a single flashback scene. Several series veterans—Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine—make walk-on appearances. He Who Must Not Be Named, a.k.a. Matt Damon, never shows up in the flesh (one wonders how many audience members waited in vain for at least a cameo) but is seen in still photographs.

The biggest problem with The Bourne Legacy, apart from being a “Bourne” movie with no Bourne, is that it feels incomplete. The climax, such as it is, doesn’t really resolve anything and feels less like a proper climax and more like set-up for Bourne 5, though who knows what that will entail. Another Renner vehicle? A Damon return? A team-up? As it is, The Bourne Legacy is a competent enough action flick to be diverting in the moment, but taken as a part of the series which it cannot stand apart from, it feels less like a film unto itself and more like an incomplete and extraneous tangent.

* * 1/2