After the completion of the original trilogy, the Bourne franchise became like a beloved internet startup that no one knew how to monetize. The financial success of the first three installments seemed to guarantee that, despite Matt Damon’s disinclination to participate further, the series would in fact continue. Given that inevitability, fans should probably feel relieved, if not excited, by The Bourne Legacy. Universal could have made a puerile reboot starring Chris Hemsworth; instead, they’ve crafted a respectable addition to the existing canon featuring Jeremy Renner.
The Bourne Legacy breaks down into three parts. In the initial phase, Renner’s Aaron Cross treks through the Arctic wilderness preternaturally evading natural and man-made threats, while various bureaucrats plot his assassination. These interminable, murky proceedings make for an interminable, murky exposition (though perhaps no murkier than the actual world of intelligence). Next, as the action rises, Cross joins with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) to seek the source of the government-sponsored pharmaceuticals which grant him his extraordinary strength and intelligence. This phase succeeds because it utilizes action not merely for its own sake but to drive the plot and develop the characters. Then, in the climactic chase sequence, Cross and Shearing paint the Philippines red as they improbably survive the combined wrath of the Manila P.D. and U.S. assassins genetically engineered to lack empathy. This stretch, though technically skillful, exists primarily as mindless spectacle. The film finally closes with a dénouement which serves mostly to set up even more sequels.
Jeremy Renner, so impressive in The Hurt Locker, doesn’t make as much of an impression here. Rachel Weisz, however, acts up a storm and emerges as the best performer in any of the Bourne pictures to date. Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays for Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum, directs; his brother Dan shares screenwriting credit. The two previously collaborated on the near-perfect Michael Clayton, but here they find themselves torn between achieving their own vision and maintaining continuity with the previous films. Legacy ends up failing to rival the standards established by either its predecessors or the Gilroy brothers’ best work.
One element of this film irks me. At the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne has found his answers in totality and eluded his pursuers with finality; when he swims off into the moonset, you imagine that he has at last found the closure he needs to move on once and for all. But instead of starting a family and passing along the occasional document to WikiLeaks, he apparently still spends his time actively antagonizing American agents around the globe. He doesn’t physically appear in The Bourne Legacy, but he remains ubiquitous, his – sigh – legacy haunting every scene, his name upon every lip. His spectral omnipresence creates an artificial sense of connection with the previous films, but does little to enhance this one. After everything he’s been through, these ongoing petty entanglements seem somehow beneath him – and this level of contrivance seems somehow beneath the producers. Apparently they hope that Legacy will generate such a haul that it will coax Matt Damon “in from the cold,” so to speak – and Jason Bourne out of the shadows.
Ultimately, The Bourne Legacy might have fared better as a standalone actioner, unconstrained by the narrative and aesthetic particulars necessary to shoehorn it into the Bourne universe. However, not nearly as many viewers would have gone to see The Cross Chronicles: A Bitter Pill or whatever the studio would have called it. Many adjectives describe this movie: noble, proficient, workmanlike, solid. Those descriptives may sound like damning with faint praise – but for fans of the genre (and I count myself amongst them), they probably qualify as enough.