Theoretically, Matt Damon’s refusal to make a fourth Bourne movie could have spelled the end of the franchise. But just as nature always finds a way in the Jurassic Park movies, so Universal has dreamed up a method of keeping its lucrative thriller property alive.
The decision was therefore made to draft in another actor to take Damon’s place. But rather than introduce a new actor as Jason Bourne, as Who or Bond so frequently does, The Bourne Legacy introduces an entirely different protagonist – neck-snapping top-secret operative Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner.
The move allows Universal to keep its options open; should Damon be tempted back in the future, the door’s still ajar for him to reclaim his crown as the ultimate post-Jack Bauer government weapon, and perhaps even have Damon and Renner fight alongside one another as a kind of dynamic black ops duo.
In its favour, The Bourne Legacy finds clever ways of weaving the strands of this new film with the Matt Damon trilogy; its events take place almost concurrently with the third film in the series, Ultimatum (2007). It’s an interesting idea, and one that makes the film’s events link with those of previous pictures while at the same time allowing Jeremy Renner’s adventures to stand on their own.
When we first meet Aaron Cross, he’s bearded and alone on a mission in the snowy environs of Alaska, the details of which are obscure. We learn that Cross is another government weapon, but not a member of Operation Treadstone, as Jason Bourne was, but one called Outcome, which uses physical and psychological enhancing pills to create a new breed of indestructible operative.
While Cross traverses the Alaskan wilderness, things are going wrong back home. Jason Bourne’s antics have led to an embarrassing media spotlight on Treadstone’s activities, and ruthless Colonel Byer (Edward Norton), in an attempt to limit the damage, decides to sever all ties with Outcome – which means that all its drug-dependent operatives and scientists will have to be quietly disposed of.
Although he escapes the first wave of assassinations, Cross remains a target, and he’s forced to locate the whereabouts of scientist Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), since only she knows the location of the chemicals which will keep him alive.
From that brief overview, you might think that The Bourne Legacy has everything you might need for a good thriller, and indeed, it seems as though director and co-writer Tony Gilroy has worked hard to work in all the elements that distinguished the first three films. As before, there are scenes of stern men in suits engaged in intense discussions about clandestine affairs, or stern men frowning in dimly lit rooms at footage beamed down from satellites. These moments are intercut with chases, explosions, and intimate physical violence using everyday household objects.
All the constituent parts are there, but the balance and pace is all wrong. Even when compared to the previous Bourne movies, Legacy is an exposition-heavy, talky film. And while you might think a new story with a fresh protagonist would give the writers a chance to pare things right back to the bare essentials – a good guy, a couple of bad guys, a clear objective – Gilroy clutters the narrative up with seemingly dozens of intrigues and characters, most of them extraneous.
Ed Norton, who sulkily imparts his lines while lit from the side by a flatscreen television for much of the duration, is joined by Stacy Keech, and Scott Glenn, as well as brief return appearances from Albert Finney, David Strathairn and Joan Allen. I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you why some of them were even in the movie.
This is unfortunate, because Jeremy Renner makes a thoroughly decent action lead. Although he’s evidently strong and capable, there’s a wounded vulnerability about him, a sense of humanity that’s vital for such a stoic, steely role. Rachel Weisz is also perfect casting; her balance of intelligence, bewilderment and flashes of resolve make her far more than a mere love interest.
The script conspires against their sterling efforts. While the story packs in all the exotic locations and set-pieces you might expect, it never establishes a compelling objective for its protagonist. Say what you will about the oft-used amnesiac hero device, it worked well for the original trilogy, and a central character desperate for a fresh hit of drugs was never going to be as compelling as Jason Bourne’s search for his true identity.
Nor is there a credible, immediate threat established until the last action-packed 20 minutes, which is a huge mistake in a movie about people essentially running from certain death.
Although the action sequences are more subdued and infrequent than previous Bourne movies, this makes absolute sense from a storytelling point of view; Gilroy’s intention, clearly, is to establish a new continuity rather than attempt to top the pyrotechnics of The Bourne Ultimatum. And taken on its own terms, Legacy’s more low-key action is fine. There’s an tense, almost horrifying shoot-out in a laboratory, an interrogation scene which is almost as unnerving, and Legacy is perhaps the first blockbuster to show a surface-to-air missile obliterate a wolf.
It’s these moments, and the strength of the lead performances, that make The Bourne Legacy just about worth seeing. But clocking in at well over two hours long, the interminable and repetitive dialogue act like lead boots on the narrative.
In aiming to make a thriller with action and intelligence, Gilroy leans too heavily on the latter aspect, misplacing the ferocious pace director Paul Greengrass brought to the previous two pictures. The result is a movie that keeps the franchise’s name afloat, but loses so much of the energy that made it so popular in the first place.
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