When the bigwigs at Universal Studios announced they were continuing the Bourne series without Matt Damon or, in fact, Jason Bourne, most fans wondered whether Jeremy Renner could take up the mantle like Roger Moore did for James Bond, except with a new character to make the titles even more confusing and perfunctory. I had no doubt. Rather, the question on my mind pertained to Tony Gilroy’s directorial style and whether he could shake off Paul Greengrass’ blurry excesses from the two previous sequels. Of course, what we all should’ve asked instead is if the flick was going to have a plot for once.
Allow me to explain. The Bourne Identity (2002), was, to some extent, a glorified chase sequence, not a classic spy thriller as many claimed. I mention this without reproach, seeing as it served to introduce Bourne’s fascinating character, but the sequels never did anything with him, content to extend the pursuit with senseless kinetic movement and lots of circular blabber about government conspiracies and the cost of war. Despite its new lead, The Bourne Legacy delivers more the same, and I can’t help but wonder why these trained super-spies don’t find more productive uses of their time like stopping an oil tycoon from fusing two continents with his satellite laser or preventing a mad geneticist from unleashing his lizard men.
On some level, I understand why Gilroy, who co-wrote the screenplay, insists on using the same bureaucratic villains, this time led by Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton), who spends the entire film barking exposition at people who don’t know what they should to prevent others from learning what they shouldn’t. The absurdity of spending untold resources to silence someone who doesn’t want to talk makes this new story feel like a direct continuation of the old one, in which Jason Bourne killed a whole bunch of folk so he could apologise for having killed a whole bunch of folk. I bet those lizard men are looking pretty good right now.
In The Bourne Legacy, we learn that the blood on Bourne’s hands extends beyond the hundreds slaughtered in car crashes and bursts of shaky cam violence. The Treadstone program responsible for our mass-murdering hero had spawned another experiment, Outcome, which is now getting burnt to the ground for fear he might expose it as well. This includes a new batch of genetically enhanced super-spies, of which Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is the sole survivor, and the scientists involved in the theory, of which Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is the sole survivor. One ends up rescuing the other, of course, and so begins a new chase, which, in a neat twist, takes place at the same time as The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).
I don’t know why I’m bothering with the plot. Fans of the franchise are looking for action, and The Bourne Legacy delivers for the most part. It’s worth noting that the early set pieces in Canada (passing for the USA) prove more effective than those in the Philippines, of which we see too little owing to the camera never steering from our heroes. How are we to care about a foot, car, and motorcycle chase if we can’t tell how far the bad guys are from their prey? By comparison, Marta’s cat-and-mouse sequence in the Sterisyn-Morlanta lab feels almost visceral in its cruel, matter-of-fact execution. I also dig Cross’ last-minute rescue in her country house, the way he defeats his opponents with timing and subterfuge rather than ninja-like reflexes.
These sequences work because they showcase personalities instead of stunts. Cross provides an interesting contrast to Bourne. He fully understands how he got to this point and, to some degree, even embraces his new status. This makes him warmer, more open, and a bit of a con artist, preferring to bank on human nature rather than procedural vigilance. I like that he always tries to talk himself out of a situation before busting out the kung fu. By the same token, Marta fills a role that’s been sorely missing since the writers killed Marie off in The Bourne Supremacy (2004), that of the relatable point-of-view character who, like us, marvels at the hero’s superhuman efficiency.
It’s unfortunate then that The Bourne Legacy goes out of its way to conceal its protagonists’ motivations. Consider the unhelpful flashbacks hinting at Cross’ complex relationship with Byer. It seems Gilroy is holding out for a potential sequel. Given the paper-thin plot, I wish he’d taken the time to establish the characters instead, but I confess to looking forward to further instalments starring Weisz and Renner if only to see how the producers will shoehorn “Bourne” into the title: “The Bourne Absenteeism”, “The Bourne Irrelevance”? Whatever they settle on, I just hope for a brand-new adventure at last. Those lizard men aren’t going to wait forever, you know.