While Doug Liman directed the first Bourne film, it’s Paul Greengrass who truly defined the franchise. His films are magnificent for a number of reasons, but one of the things I love about them is the tension between Greengrass’ understanding of why black ops happens and his fury at the fact that it does happen. While too many have lazily critiqued his action scenes by throwing ‘shaky cam’ at them, Greengrass’ aesthetic is incredible, more concerned with making you feel the action than with letting you see it. His films are extraordinary post-9/11 works, films that wrestle with the necessity and horror of ultimate sanctions.
Jason Bourne is a perfect hero for that world. His amnesia gives him a blank slate, allowing us to discover the truth with him. More than that it gives him a moral righteousness - as he learns what he has done for Treadstone his reaction is to even the score, to make up for the sins he committed in a past life.
Aaron Cross, the new hero of the Bourne franchise, doesn’t have that complexity. Where Jason Bourne was a man trained to his maximum ability, Cross and his fellow agents in the Outcome program are enhanced. Pills - annoyingly called ‘chems’ again and again - boost Cross’ physical and mental abilities. He’s more human than human.
And where Bourne was in search of his past - and eventually redemption - Cross knows full well who he was. In fact he’s not a big fan of that guy; before joining Outcome Cross was a GI with a sub-normal IQ. Without his ‘chems’ that’s exactly who he’ll become again. It’s Flowers For AlgerBourne.
Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for Cross, but when Bourne gets away at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum and Pam Landry testifies before Congress shit hits the fan. Outcome is one of a half dozen secret super soldier projects floating around in the black ops world, but it’s the only one in danger of being compromised. And so evil agent Ed Norton orders everybody in Outcome be killed.
Cross is left as the only survivor of Outcome, and his only hope is to find the scientist lady who helped synthesize the ‘chems’ he’s always yapping about and get his upgrades made permanent. Meanwhile, evil Ed Norton is hunting Cross down and dispatches a next generation operative to kill him.
Tony Gilroy is credited with writing all three previous Bourne films, but the last two really were Greengrass’ babies. This time Gilroy, who directs as well as writes, tries to bring things back a bit to the first films’ feel. He even quotes the opening shot of that movie as the opening shot of this movie. And like The Bourne Identity, much of the film is a buddy picture/romance between our secret super agent and a helpless, yet just tough enough to not be a damsel in distress, lady.
That dynamic doesn’t quite work here. Jeremy Renner is no Matt Damon, for one thing. His energy is different - darker, edgier - and so his chemistry with Rachel Weisz, the scientist who keeps telling us she did this stuff for science, is off. He doesn’t threaten her, but there’s something slightly threatening about him. The scenes where the film allows him to give some chilled out menace are great, but by the time the movie devolves into Cross improbably showing up to rescue Weisz’ character again and again and again you sense that Gilroy simply isn’t using Renner right.
Damon is baby faced, while Renner’s worn features and big eyes speak to a world of experience. When not saddled with Weisz (who is given lots of thankless scenes like cowering during a workplace shooting, cowering during an attempt on her life and running away from the cops after cowering in a Manila alley) he’s great. Even when saddled with her he’s really, really good. Renner’s a fine choice to continue the series because he’s not just Baby Bourne, and I hope that in future installments he gets to stake out a bit more of his own territory.
If they get to future installments. Gilroy has made one weird ass movie; the film feels like it’s building up to a big climax and then it just ends. This is obviously franchise filmmaking at its worst, a situation where the filmmaker is okay leaving things hanging because he thinks he’ll pick it up in the next film. But it’s incredibly unsatisfying, and the end of the film comes as a big letdown after some good business up front. Renner and Norton never even come close to sharing a scene together. Never has the rolling of the credits felt more like a letdown, and I kept expecting "Come Back In December For The Bourne Legacy Part 2!" to flash on the screen.
The movie itself gradually deflates. I love the opening; Cross is out in the Alaskan wild in an Outcome training exercise/punishment. Watching Renner deal with the environment and wolves (there’s better wolf punching in The Bourne Legacy than The Grey) is thrilling. And Gilroy deftly intercuts the outdoorsy stuff with Ed Norton trying to clean up Jason Bourne’s mess, with the cross-cutting propelling each story forward. But those two stories never quite intersect, and once Cross is in the lower 48 things begin to limp a little.
There’s very little action in The Bourne Legacy. There’s a major, major chase scene at the end, but there are no moments in the rest of the film that match the propulsive action of the first three movies. Cross is less likely to fight his way out of a situation and more likely to knock over a lady’s oranges to create chaos so he can run off. I don’t necessarily mind that - while Cross is more of a superhero than Bourne, he actually engages in less overtly superheroic behavior - but I wanted to see Cross having badass fights with worthy opponents. Mostly he beats up security guards.
When a worthy opponent does show up the movie never gives him a personality or a style of any sort. While Ed Norton is the big bad of the film, The Bourne Legacy’s structure keeps him far away from the action; unfortunately his proxy villain leaves no impression. The baddie, known only as Larx #3 (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien, Hanzo from Predators), is so anonymous and boring that he personifies the film’s last half deflation. That’s the best we get? What's especially disappointing about him is that the first half of the film introduces an interesting, complex-seeming Outcome agent played by Oscar Isaac; that character, or a character like that, would have made for a fine villain in the end.
It’s too bad that the proxy bad guy is so weak because Norton is strong. He’s not playing a bad bad guy - his character believes what he’s doing is right. The film spends so much time with him and his team that you almost begin to think he could be the secondary hero of the piece. But then as Legacy goes on you wonder why we’re spending so much time with him; what began as dual stories loses focus when it becomes clear they’ll never intersect. I suspect that the reason we spend so much time with Cross' pursuers is that Gilroy is hugely in love with white men in ties spouting off lots of complicated jargon in really intense ways.
Gilroy shoots action with some basic competence. There are action beats I quite like, while other bits - like aspects of the big finale chase - were grating and incomprehensible. For all the complaints, Greengrass’ action was visceral. Gilroy’s can’t decide if it wants to be visceral or clean, and as a result it’s neither. There are too many moments in the final chase where I had to work out in my head just what was happening.
The Bourne Legacy is a ‘period piece’ (in-film cues indicate it takes place around 2006), but the only thing that feels really retro about it is the lack of heroic women. While Weisz gets her moments at the end, the series needs a truly badass female character. There’s a hint of female Outcome agents, but they don’t play a role in the movie. Why not? If Gilroy was going to introduce a generic supervillain, a woman would have worked just as well.
Despite all of these misgivings, The Bourne Legacy represents a solid restart for the franchise. The ghost of Jason Bourne hangs all over the first half of the movie, so it seems obvious that Gilroy would like to bring Damon back, but even if he never returns Renner is more than capable of shouldering the burden. The film, while echoing The Bourne Identity, is adequate enough (not the highest praise, I know) and creates enough space for itself to warrant further adventures. I just wish that Gilroy hadn’t written the film with those further adventures in mind and had given us more closure.
What will those further adventures look like? With The Bourne Legacy the franchise takes a step square into science fiction. We’re now in a world where it’s not unlikely for bionically enhanced agents show up. The real world concerns of the Greengrass films are left behind and now the Bourne saga could be entering its baroque phase. Is the franchise’s Moonraker on the horizon?