Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy
Let me pose a question: which films in the Bourne series have revolved around the conceit of a highly-trained super soldier going rogue, being pursued by the government, and culminating in a thrilling car chase action sequence? If you answered “damned near all of them” you would be correct. To be fair, The Bourne Identity doesn’t end with a car chase, but the fact remains that all the films in this series are incredibly similar. Universal was faced with a hard decision with The Bourne Legacy when series star Matt Damon refused to return. Instead of ignoring continuity the studio decided that they would instead go for the backdoor reboot. Cast a new actor as lead, set the film in the same world with the same continuity, but functionally make it a reboot of the series. What we got in the end wasn’t so much a reboot or a sequel but more a film that should be called The Bourne Ultimatum 2.5, a movie that struggles to differentiate itself while at the same time clinging desperately to the Bourne formula and too many Bourne Ultimatum plot points.
The decision to quasi-reboot the series with a new lead was a bold move, one that could potentially backfire if audiences weren’t capable of disassociating the Bourne name with the actor who made that name famous. Instead of following Jason Bourne, we now get to meet Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross. Cross is a member of Operation Outcome, which gives him abilities similar to Jason Bourne (increased intelligence, strength, and healing abilities) with the new wrinkle of needing to take an orally ingested chemical regiment to keep these abilities. Just like in any Bourne film, this program is highly classified and now, thanks to Jason Bourne’s activities, it’s being scrubbed. Now Cross has to venture across the globe to find the chems he’s been taking to keep his abilities while dodging government agents.
Aside from the “hey, I totally need these meds” plot point, The Bourne Legacy is… well… the same as every other Bourne movie – for better or for worse. The odd thing is that Legacy doesn’t really relate to the other Bourne movies in any meaningful way. Yes, it takes place during the same period of time as Bourne Ultimatum, and apparently Jason Bourne was perhaps part of the same program as Cross at some point, and uh… well, that’s about the only relation.
Despite the film peppering us with references to Bourne in the early moments, and despite one of the ending codas ignoring Legacy’s story and instead tying up loose ends from Ultimatum (despite focusing on characters who aren’t even in Legacy, a silly misstep), it didn’t need to be connected to the previous films in this capacity. It certainly didn’t need the slavish adherence to the structure of the earlier Bourne films.
Without a firm and intriguing plot of its own, Legacy feels like something that should be part of Bourne Ultimatum instead of its own standalone film. Rather than build Legacy as something that could stand on its own, the script (by director Tony Gilroy and his brother Dan) keeps throwing espionage film gobbledygook at the audience. Operation Outcome, Viralling, Larx, Blackbriar, Treadstone – all terms that are tossed out at the audience without much explanation. Granted, some of those are from the previous Bourne movies, but even they don’t get much explanation. It feels like Gilroy figured he could keep buffeting the audience with jargon to ignore the fact that the plot isn’t original or very compelling.
In fact, it feels like half a movie. Just when we get to know Cross and his traveling companion Doctor Shearing (Rachel Weisz) the film begins its big final action sequence. The early moments of the film service Ultimatum’s plot more than Legacy, the narrative jumps around the globe with a moment’s notice and there are strange time-jumps to past events; the first third of the film is a messy bore. I’m confident that someone could easily take Legacy and Ultimatum and chop them together and no one would notice, except that the film would have two lead characters. That’s how weak Legacy stands on its own.
The world of Bourne has also gotten incredibly silly now that half the people we meet are super soldiers. In the earlier films Jason Bourne was dangerous and he was the only one of his kind. In this film we meet several super soldiers.
But here’s where things get complicated. If you’re invested in the Bourne universe, you’ll find several things to enjoy here. Cross himself isn’t incredibly compelling in the early going of the film, but Renner is a great actor and he’s a capable action star. He sells the reality of Cross’s abilities fairly well. Cross is easy to dislike early on, but Renner imbues the character with charm and likability by the end. So while I don’t think that Legacy is an especially strong film, I wouldn’t mind seeing him get another crack at this role.
It took me nearly the entire film to realize that it was Rachel Weisz in the thankless role of Doctor Shearing, the walking info dump; I’m beginning to think she’s the female equivalent of Dick Clark, since she never seems to age. In fact, if you didn’t see the trailers you’d be forgiven for thinking that her character was a waste of time. Cross and Shearing don’t even meet outside of flashbacks until halfway through the film. Weisz does a decent job with what she’s given (which, to be fair, is mostly looking shell-shocked and doing what Cross says), but she slips into her English accent a bit too easily. It’s also great that the script doesn’t ram a love story down our throats. There’s room for something to happen in a potential sequel, but it’s very understated here.
The action is also well done. The problem with the previous Bourne films (aside from the first one) was a reliance on overly shaky camera work. Gilroy does trend towards a shakiness in the handheld camera work, but it never hits the levels of obnoxiousness that Supremacy and Ultimatum often had. On the other hand, Gilroy is a relative newcomer to directing; this is only his third film and his sophomore effort at any kind of action direction. His blocking of the final car chase sequence is a muddled mess. It’s difficult to understand where all the characters and vehicles are in relation to one another at times. The sequence is thrilling, but often confusing.
This is not a film for those not versed in the Bourne universe. It’s a masterclass in how to not reboot a series, because it requires a deep knowledge of the previous films. It’s a confusing, often frustrating film that doesn’t add a whole lot to the world it takes place in. But fans of the series will be happy to return to this world; just don’t expect any grand revelations. The Bourne Legacy is an appropriate title, just not in the way the filmmakers perhaps intended. The film seems to take all of the Bourne film legacy and creates a film terribly similar to its predecessors.