The Bourne Legacy is the kind of trick you only get to pull once. It’s an interesting narrative experiment, but it doesn’t really work as its own movie. It almost feels, at times, like a deleted subplot from the second two films in the trilogy, removed and expanded to fill two-hours-and-a-half. It’s certainly an interesting idea, and it’s a clever way of skirting the issues created by Matt Damon’s refusal to return, but the problem is that The Bourne Legacy never feels like it is entirely its own film. While it features two characters who have their own arc, the overall plot plays out according to storybeats that are happening off screen – in another story with another agent. It’s a fascinating take on the summer blockbuster, but I’m not convinced it’s an entirely successful one.
“It’s Bourne, isn’t it?” one high ranking official asks at an impromptu meeting in a sleazy dinner to deal with the fact that the programme is being curtailed. “That’s what this is about?” Later on, an executive dreads the pending inquiries into the illegal military operation, wondering what a regular from the first three films might say if called to give evidence. He’s worried that she might testify that “Jason Bourne is just the tip of the iceberg.” With all the printouts featuring the character, the news footage, the references to event from the films in question, and even his signature etched in a wooden bunk, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bourne himself was a major character in this film – despite never appearing.
And that, to be fair, is the biggest hurdle that the film faces. It’s hard to be interested in our nominal lead character – Aaron Cross – when the movie itself is more interested in what Jason Bourne is doing. The “legacy” part of the title is somewhat misleading. “Legacy” suggests a movie exploring the aftermath of an incident. It would be possible for another character to star in such a film. However, the bulk of The Bourne Legacy occurs concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, and isn’t so much about picking up the pieces in the wake of the Burne trilogy as it is about reacting in real time.
Aaron Cross has a character arc, to be fair. He has a story that begins in one place and ends in another. However, his story feels decidedly “small” when measured against the implication of Bourne’s dismantling of the programme. Cross gets no real emotional closure to his arc or development. Instead, he accomplishes a plot orientated goal that doesn’t seem like a victory. Although carefully seeded into the early moments of the film, his “chem” dependency only begins to steer events around the half-way point, and it almost seems like it’s a shallow device to move the action from America to Singapore.
That sounds a bit harsh, and it’s a shame. There are a lot of great ingredients here, measured on their own terms. If The Bourne Identity and its sequels were focused squarely on government corruption within a decadent intelligence-gathering community, The Bourne Legacy does well to broaden the scope a bit. There’s a lot of interesting ideas here about the public sector implications of the various illicit programmes going on here – the director of a multi-national drug company is drafted into the emergency response to the situation, and it’s his company that has to be tidied up. Cross teams up with a doctor who isn’t employed by the state, but works as a private contractor.
There’s a lot of new ground to cover there, and it provides an opportunity for the film to find its own feet. Unfortunately, that never quite happens. Edward Norton’s sinister government official is reduced to a knock-off of the previous films in the series. Barring one short sequence with Renner in flashback, Norton spends most of the film isolated from the two leads – he seems to live in those government offices. He’s a fine actor, but he can only do so much. Chris Cooper and Brian Cox at least got to interact the Matt Damon.
The best idea that The Bourne Legacy brings to the table is that notion of the “chems” that allow the agents to function higher than usual – mentally and physically. Cross is revealed to have an IQ twelve points below the minimum to join the army, and he faces the possibility of getting progressively dumber unless he can source his pills. It feels like an affectionate reference to Flowers for Algernon, albeit with the moral inverted. In that story the hero considered his enhanced intellect a burden. Here, Cross depends on it.
Of course, the pills are pretty much entirely new. There’s some clumsy exposition about how they fit in with the mythos, having never appeared in the earlier films – apparently Bourne is still high-functioning “off his meds.” Despite, or perhaps because, of this fact, the pills give The Bourne Legacy something that is truly its own, and not shared with its predecessors. It’s a shame that they are ultimately reduced to a plot point, with our lead having to secure his supply to maintain his edge.
Perhaps the film would have been stronger if it connected more fluid and gracefully to the original three. Instead, it seems like the producers blackmailed as many former cast members into making brief appearances in the film, for no other reason than to stress the connection. In fact, it seems like there’s a conscious effort to “slot the film” into the gaps of the original trilogy, as if the validity of these new characters depends on their association to the old ones.
Scott Glenn, for example, reprises his role for a single scene to meet with Stacy Keach, as if his presence lends Keach’s character validity. Joan Allen pops in for a scene that really serves no purpose – as if to scream at the audience “look how many cast members we got!” Albert Finney pops up once or twice, but never in a significant way. It seems almost like he’s there just so that the producers can say that he’s there. The Bourne Legacy places too much of its self-worth on those ties to earlier films, which is disappointing.
Jeremy Renner makes a convincing lead. He’s much less introverted than Matt Damon’s super-spy, but it’s precisely what the film needs. Damon had a film that belonged entirely to him, while Renner feels like he’s headlining a film with an actor who never appears. Renner has to be a bit louder and a bit more emotionally transparent. I wouldn’t mind seeing Renner as Cross in a film belonging entirely to the actor. He has a nice and casual chemistry with co-star Rachel Weisz, who really is a fantastic choice for what would otherwise be a bland role.
Weisz plays a bumbling scientist well, convincing us that she really has no place in this espionage world – she’s strong and intelligent, but always acutely aware that this simply isn’t her world. It’s a tough role to play, and Weisz plays it well. She’s definitely a wonderful asset for a film like this, much as she was in The Mummy all those years ago.
The Bourne Legacy is ultimately more interesting than it is successful, which is a shame given the talent involved. It’s set-up is fascinating, but it’s ultimately too dependent on its predecessors for its own good. If the producers can find a way to follow the film up with a movie that does have its own identity, all the pieces are certainly positioned correctly.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Aaron Cross, bourne, Bourne Identity, Bourne Legacy, bourne ultimatum, film, jason bourne, jeremy renner, matt damon, Movie, non-review review, rachel weisz, review, Robert Ludlum, Singapore, Tony Gilroy