After “The Bourne Ultimatum” became the most successful and critically praised film of a trilogy considered the consummate modern spy series, it was only a matter of time before the saga continued. With that film’s director, Paul Greengrass, interested in pursuing other projects, and star Matt Damon uninterested in returning without Greengrass, Universal has been forced to expand the “Bourne” universe, and the result is “The Bourne Legacy.”
For those up in arms over the continuing of the franchise without Damon front and center, fast-rising action star Jeremy Renner assumes the new face of of the series without skipping a beat as Aaron Cross, the product of another CIA program offshoot of Treadstone called Outcome. Backed by the talents of Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton — and co-written and directed by longtime series scribe Tony Gilroy — “The Bourne Legacy” keeps tonally with the original trilogy and generates the same degree of respect.
In terms of the “Bourne” consistency, “Legacy” maintains the back-and-forth structure of the skilled spy on the loose vs. the CIA division trying to track him down. The film takes place at the same time as “Ultimatum.” When Jason Bourne becomes a media story as seen in that film, the CIA senses a public relations nightmare is about to unfold, and Norton’s Eric Byer — the man behind most of the agency’s black ops programs — has to clean up the mess.
Byer finds damning evidence connecting Blackbriar to Outcome, a program involving nine agents who have received physical and mental genetic enhancements and assist in top-secret military reconnaissance. Given the Bourne fiasco, he determines the best way to save the body is amputate the limb, and Cross and all “participants” in the Outcome program are targeted.
Given the advanced science involved in Outcome, the CIA employed a top-flight science facility to regularly check in with those agents and test new genetic drugs. Weisz’s Dr. Marta Shearing soon finds her life in jeopardy and her name in the headlines, and after Cross survives an attempt to wipe him off the map, he connects with her and the two go on the run.
This story really opens the door up to the potential of the series going forward. At one point we learn just how many secret black ops programs the CIA has commissioned, which will surely capture the imagination of series fans who have steeped themselves in the world of “Bourne.”
As its own film, however, “Legacy” is missing some key pieces. Especially at the beginning, Gilroy focuses extensively on connecting the original trilogy to this new part of the “Bourne” universe. One of his and Universal’s primary concerns appears to be providing just cause for continuing the franchise rather than delivering a complete spy action/thriller. Even the opening shot of “Legacy” directly mirrors the closing shot of “Ultimatum.”
Mostly, it’s the conclusion that doesn’t do the build-up justice. The script appropriately takes its time with the construction of Cross and Marta and clearly sets up their motivations, except that they are motivations out of necessity rather than desire, which ultimately takes a toll on the emotional payoff. “Legacy” just doesn’t arrive anywhere, content instead to be the start of something new.
Sticking to the series formula gives “Legacy” a certain level of comfort. There’s no lack of “Bourne”-patented clever solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, exotic locales or impressive enemy takedowns. If anything, it’s a little too reliant on what worked in the past, unwilling to take big risks and consequently unable to strike any new notes.
More exposition also means less time for action. The trailer spoils most of the best action moments in the film, and in general “Legacy” doesn’t aspire to reach the bar set by previous entries. Gilroy proves an adequate director in this regard, possessing Greengrass’ eye for frenetic action but without the same degree of editing prowess.
“The Bourne Legacy” amounts to a stepping stone to what can be for this franchise rather than exploding out of the gate as the start of something special. As has been the case with the filmmaking choices in key reboots this year, namely “The Amazing Spider-Man,” there has been a willingness to make sacrifices in the first “new” entry so that future installments can run off the leash. In theory, Aaron Cross isn’t tied to anything. He could even team up with Jason Bourne in the future and take it once more to Langley’s doorstep.
There’s legitimate promise in the future of all things “Bourne,” so at the worst, “Legacy” comes out as one of the lesser entries of an otherwise exceptional series. There are much, much uglier blemishes on the records of Hollywood’s biggest and best franchises. If anything, “Legacy” should end up a tiny, even glamorous scar in the service of something great.
The Bourne Legacy
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Written by Tony and Dan Gilroy, Rober Ludlum (series)
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton