There is absolutely no objective way to deny that 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum was produced as a grand finale; it saw protagonist Jason Bourne making peace with the secrets of his past, taking down the villainous Blackbriar/Treadstone programs once and for all, and escaping to live his life in peace after authorities believe him dead. Ultimatum was the end of the Jason Bourne story. Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon believed in the strength of their finale so strongly, in fact, that they refused to return for a fourth installment, despite lucrative offers from Universal Pictures.
Continuing the franchise after such a definitive conclusion, especially without the main character present, was always going to be a severe challenge, and the garbled, tedious, structurally broken nature of The Bourne Legacy proves that tackling such a challenge was an awful creative decision, no matter how the film pans out commercially.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy’s script works itself into contortions finding viable narrative avenues to expand on events from the trilogy, and is even more scattershot when introducing new characters and plot threads to give the franchise life post-Damon. Part reboot, part epilogue, and wholly unsuccessful on both counts, the film is an utter enigma, bafflingly insubstantial as a sequel and completely underwhelming as a fresh adventure.
What confuses me most is how vastly Gilroy – who wrote each film in the original trilogy – misunderstands what made earlier installments compelling. I love the Bourne films because Jason Bourne is a fascinating character, and his story led to profound discussions on the nature of identity and the difficulty in maintaining morality in an increasingly harsh world. The government conspiracy and espionage material was never as crucial to the series’ success as strong characters and thematic depth, but The Bourne Legacy allows those tertiary elements to completely consume the story. It’s all about how the government reacts after Bourne’s actions threaten to make Treadstone’s illicit activities public, and as such, the film quickly becomes mired in spy jargon, obscure references to prior events, and impossibly dense swaths of incoherent exposition.
But without Jason Bourne present to ground such complexities in tangible, human stakes, it’s hard to care about any of these convoluted plot mechanics. We only put up with them before because they mattered to Jason Bourne, and Jason Bourne, in turn, mattered to us. Gilroy introduces a new protagonist – Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) – for us to follow, but the story is so wrapped up in connecting itself to prior events – all so Universal can keep the name Bourne attached for marketing purposes – that Cross isn’t a character so much as a piece on a chessboard.
It’s a shame. I think there are seeds of an interesting film in Cross’ story, and if Gilroy and Renner weren’t beholden to continuing the plot of the first three films, they may have had space to expand those seeds into a fresh, full-fledged spin-off. Cross belongs to a new intelligence initiative – “Outcome” – that employs genetic conditioning to give its agents superhuman strength and intelligence. That’s a fascinating concept, and were The Bourne Legacy set several years after Ultimatum – rather than running parallel to its predecessor – I think Gilroy could get a lot of mileage out of exploring where espionage has evolved in the wake of the Treadstone scandal (and, perhaps, how the nature of security paranoia has changed in the five years since Ultimatum was released).
But because the film must be connected to Bourne’s story, “Outcome” is treated as a parallel operation, and it’s one of the films most crippling dramatic choices. It vastly overcomplicates the proceedings at every turn – good luck figuring out how Outcome relates to Treadstone, or to Bourne, or why exactly Jason’s actions impact Cross’ safety – and makes Cross’ arc subservient to Jason’s, who isn’t even present. Cross has certain personal goals I won’t spoil here, but they’re all thoroughly underdeveloped, and in the end, his story is one of simple escape. Other than self-preservation, he never achieves anything of great significance; he doesn’t expose any government secrets, doesn’t stop any noteworthy threat, and never even becomes enlightened to the scope of the conspiracy he’s embroiled in. His arc is dramatically lightweight, and as a result, it feels like precious little has been accomplished when the end credits roll.
It doesn’t help that Gilroy’s lack of action experience prevents us from believing Cross is a genetically altered super-soldier. The staging of set pieces is just abysmal, flaccidly low on energy with poorly defined parameters or stakes, and Gilroy’s direction never sells Cross as a force on par with Jason Bourne, let alone one who has surpassed human evolutionary limits. The science behind Cross’ condition is far too critical to the story for Gilroy to fumble the ball here, but he does, and it prevents me from taking a large majority of the film seriously.
In fact, Gilroy’s direction fails on just about every level. Whether or not you like the handheld, shaky-cam style Paul Greengrass pioneered in his Bourne films (I happen to approve wholeheartedly), it was a distinctive visual technique that defined those movies as unique aesthetic achievements. Gilroy ditches everything Greengrass brought to the series, and fails to replace it with new visual concepts. The film is shot like any other generic action drama, and while there are nice compositions here and there, The Bourne Legacy is on the whole a dull-looking affair. Gilroy can’t even be bothered to block conversations interestingly, or spice up long expository sequences. This is a poorly directed movie, and that, more than anything else, sets it far apart from other Bourne films.
The actors do what they can in utterly one-dimensional roles, but nobody impresses in any substantial way. Renner imbues Cross with his natural charisma and physicality, but he can’t breathe life into a character who has none on page, and the same goes for Edward Norton. He plays the government agent working to tie up loose ends, and is in essence the film’s antagonist. His motivations, purpose, and connection to the Bourne case are all spectacularly unclear, though, and Norton cannot transcend the character’s frustratingly enigmatic nature. And Rachel Weisz is given so little to do as Cross’ love interest that, I kid you not, I failed to realize it was Weisz in the part until the credits rolled. Talk about wasting talent.
The Bourne Legacy is a strange, infuriating film. It reminds me of the Pink Panther movies Blake Edwards made after Peter Sellers passed away, where everyone scrambled to keep the profit train rolling without asking themselves whether or not continuing the story was a creatively viable option. In this case, it isn’t. I don’t think Damon’s departure inherently needs to signal the death-knell of this franchise, but if this is the best Gilroy – who is a wildly talented writer – can come up with, it’s clear the commercial parameters have created an artistically untenable situation. The Bourne Legacy sullies an awful lot of this franchise’s goodwill, and that makes me sad. Bourne deserves better.