The scene where 2012’s The Bourne Legacy first comes truly alive features neither parkour or car chases; it also lacks fisticuffs or a single gunshot; heck, it doesn’t even have Matt Damon. To be sure, the fourth (and generally ignored) film in the Jason Bourne franchise has its fair share of death-defying stunts and white-knuckle action. However, the movie really clicks to life when a coterie of bureaucrats gather inside a windowless room, sharing hushed whispers.
The scene is dominated by who was intended to be the series’ new big heavy, Col. Eric Bryer (Edward Norton), who is revealed to be the Director of the National Research Assay Group. This is essentially a fictional version of DARPA, the research and development agency that operates within the the U.S. Department of Defense and is responsible for developing emerging technologies for military use. In the world of Jason Bourne, that means the infamous “Operation Treadstone,” which was set up by CIA fossils.
In the original and defining trilogy of films that make up the movie franchise, The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2006), Treadstone is revealed to be the illegal project that turned folks like David Webb (alias Jason Bourne) into a super soldier so as to perform the whims of Cold War relics like Deputy Director Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) and Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney). And here’s where the sheer ingenuity of The Bourne Legacy comes into play.
As Norton’s Bryer breathlessly admonishes his underlings out of frustration from the crisis that’s unfolding, we discover the film is set during the events of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. If you’re hazy on the timeline, the second film ends with Damon’s superspy, Jason Bourne, barely escaping Russia by the skin of his teeth. It then jumps ahead some weeks where he appears to threaten (and flirt with?) new CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Subsequently, the events of the finale of the trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum, primarily take place within the days between that time jump in Supremacy, with the climax of the third film occurring directly after Jason rings Pam’s phone.
Now in The Bourne Legacy, we discover that the story we are watching is occurring concurrently with the events that ended the second movie and began the third, with Eric’s not-DARPA organization being completely exasperated by the clusterf**k that is occurring—and not only because of Bourne but because of what Bourne exposes them to. For instance, Operation Treadstone is just one of many supersoldier programs DoD has been apparently running surreptitiously for decades. And what could blow it all up? Not Jason Bourne, per se, but the fallibility and ego of Jason Bourne’s proverbial creator, Finney’s Dr. Hirsch, who likes to party with other bad actors in the government like CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn).
As it turns out, the two have a long history of drunkenly alluding to their little spy games in euphemisms at parties. All of which are on YouTube. That is the crisis that precipitates the entire nightmare scenario of The Bourne Legacy. It’s also of a piece with the work of the arguably underrated mastermind, Tony Gilroy.
Celebrated these days by fan communities thanks to creating the first genuinely good Star Wars TV series, Andor, Gilroy cut his teeth on franchise entertainment in a different era. Having been with the Bourne franchise since the beginning, Gilroy penned or co-wrote every installment of the original Bourne trilogy. At the time, this received less attention since all three were technically based on books of the same names by Robert Ludlum, and the creative force most folks thought of behind those movies were the star, Matt Damon, and director Paul Greengrass, who took over as helmer of the 2004 and 2007 Bourne sequels. Indeed, Greengrass helped popularize the mid-2000s action movie obsession with chaotic handheld cinematography during action scenes, aka “shaky-cam,” which gave his movies’ action scenes a visceral, documentarian quality (and also made certain sequences, especially in the second movie, incomprehensible).
Greengrass may have defined the aesthetic we think of for the Bourne films, but the whole idea of adapting Ludlum’s novels into a gritty post-9/11 realpolitik franchise came from Gilroy and Doug Liman, the latter being the director of The Bourne Identity. Liman first came up with the idea of adapting Ludlum because the author’s vision of 1980s espionage reminded him of his father’s investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. And after Liman left the franchise following the first film, it really became Gilroy who was the creative through-line, mostly jettisoning the novels to build his own labyrinthine vision of 21st century governmental agencies being unshackled by little things like accountability or oversight during the War on Terror years.
The Bourne Legacy perhaps reflects this more than any other film in the franchise. As the first installment to be made after Damon and Greengrass said they were done, as well as the first after Gilroy made his directorial debut (and greatest work to date) in Michael Clayton (2009), Legacy was a chance for the key writer to assume the director’s chair. And for creating a new antagonist that expanded beyond Jason’s origins, Gilroy envisioned not faceless, omnipotent generals and master spies chasing the hero. Instead he created panicked and reactionary technocrats so afraid of a P.R. disaster that they’ll do anything to cover their own ass… including kill for it.
This is the impetus of the movie and it makes for an interesting forerunner to Gilroy’s work on Andor. Much like the Star Wars series, the film’s new protagonist is not an amnesiac looking for answers. PFC Kenneth James Kitsom, alias Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), knows exactly who he is and the games he’s played to enter the Operation Outcome experiment in a different division and agency from the CIA’s Treadstone. He’s a killing machine who volunteered to be enhanced, although years later he has second thoughts about it. Hence why he’s been essentially banished to the Alaskan wilderness nearest the Arctic where he meets “Number Three” (Oscar Isaac), another Outcome agent who’s been reassigned to this frozen hell because he was still too human for men like Byer, having fallen in love during a prior mission.
Renner and Isaac’s characters have no vendetta against the government they serve, and Cross only goes on the run because of the incompetence of those pursuing him. After a drone strike kills Isaac’s agent (a waste of a talent that Universal clearly didn’t recognize in 2012), Aaron is able to survive his own drone attack by implanting his tracker on a Gray Wolf. Byer thinks he’s hunting a supersoldier but is instead slaughtering White Fang.
Meanwhile Cross goes on the run, uncovering a massive government cover up when one of the scientists who treated him, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), becomes a target as well for an agency intent on clipping every loose end. In fact, the most intense sequence in the film features no supersoldier at all. Rather a fellow doctor who’s been brainwashed as a sleeper cell in Marta’s lab (Michael Chernus) is triggered to murder everyone in what looks like a lone shooter scenario. A decade ago, the preponderance of mass shooters made this sequence chilling, in 2023, where the frequency of mass murder by guns only goes up in the U.S., it’s almost unbearable to watch.
It’s one of several effective set pieces Gilroy reveals. Another is a tense shootout between Cross and assassins sent to finish the job in Marta’s house. Meanwhile the climactic motorcycle chase in the Philippines is effectively impressive for its reliance on in-camera stunt work.
Refreshingly, these scenes largely eschew the disorienting confusion of Greengrass’ action scenes, allowing the viewer to see and understand every moment of action. However, they also lose the undeniable kineticism of Greengrass at his best, such as the rooftop chase in Ultimatum that is still mimicked to this day by everything from Bond movies to, uh, Jurassic World.
Still, visually-speaking, The Bourne Legacy is able to stand on its own while it narratively expands on the world by adding irony to Gilroy’s intricate web of interagency malfeasance—it introduces the idea that a lot of this horror is created due to vanity, arrogance, cowardice, and other human failings. It was a canny evolution of the Bourne world, however it failed to find a major audience in its time. While the fourth Bourne film made money—$276 million worldwide to be exact—that was down from The Bourne Supremacy which made $290 million nearly a decade earlier and way down from the nearly $450 million grossed by The Bourne Ultimatum.
In other words, audiences really didn’t care because it didn’t actually feature Damon’s Jason Bourne, which is more than fair. Legacy was an attempt to expand a popular franchise past the shelflife of its popular lead character (or their actor’s interest), a concept that seemed faintly desperate and distasteful in 2012, but has practically become pro forma in 2023 thanks to legacy sequels. Also it marked the second spy movie franchise in as many years that Renner unconvincingly attempted to present himself as the heir to, the other being his supporting performance in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). Indeed, he’d be the first of many actors Tom Cruise would refuse to pass the torch to.
Yet while it was nice to see Damon eventually back in the Jason Bourne role in a movie called (what else?) Jason Bourne in 2016, that reunion between Greengrass and the star nine years after Ultimatum revealed something interesting. As the first installment in the series not at least co-written by Gilroy, the fifth movie’s script by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse was paper thin—a collection of clichés inspired by the original trilogy’s actual layered plotting. And while some franchises can thrive on stories that are merely vehicles intended to set up the action scenes (hello, again, Mission: Impossible or the more recent John Wick), that was never the entire appeal of the Bourne movies. Greengrass and Damon’s shaky cam swagger is a big part of it, but Gilroy’s cynical commentary and shrewd observations about power is another.
For all its faults, including a lack of true resolution, The Bourne Legacy is a far better successor to the original trilogy than the movie titled Jason Bourne.