Fans of the Jason Bourne series have been skeptical about the prospect of The Bourne Legacy ever since the project was first announced back in 2010. While franchise leading man Matt Damon, who played the titular hero in the first three movies, was originally attached for a fourth film (to be directed by Paul Greengrass), the pair later dropped out of the project, and instead, Jeremy Renner (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Avengers) as well as Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum writer, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), were tasked with bringing an entirely new Bourne universe character to the big screen.
As indicated, the notion of a Bourne series film without an appearance by Jason Bourne did not sit well with fans of the franchise – leading many to dismiss The Bourne Legacy as little more than a thinly-veiled cash grab. However, does the final film defy the naysayers and live up to the lofty bar set by the original trilogy – delivering the same visceral action and sharp storytelling?
Unfortunately, The Bourne Legacy is neither as exciting or as intriguing as the Matt Damon-led films – but that doesn’t mean it’s a total misfire. In general, the movie’s biggest shortcoming is an overlong runtime that is the result of a number of drawn-out scenes and action set pieces. Nearly every moment of the film is interesting, whether a meditative character beat or a fast-paced chase sequence, but not everything is essential. As the minutes tick on, these less-engaging elements begin to distract from the core narrative – resulting in a diminished return for the on-screen drama.
An overstuffed, and overcomplicated, plot is largely to blame for a bloated Bourne Legacy experience. Not only does Gilroy, who also wrote the film (along with brother Dan Gilroy), introduce an entirely new sympathetic operative: number 5, Aaron Cross – the filmmakers also attempt to weave further plotlines into The Bourne Ultimatum story.
Essentially, the rogue actions of Jason Bourne, namely his attack on Operation Blackbriar, cause the CIA, headed by Retired Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton), to shutter black ops programs including Treadstone – leading to the execution of countless field agents and support staffers. After narrowly avoiding an attempt on his own life, new franchise face Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is forced into a kill or be killed chase as he flees the covert purge. Unfortunately, Cross is low on his “green and blues” – drugs supplied by the CIA through “Operation Outcome” (a Treadstone offshoot) that give agents an intellectual and physical edge in the field. Cross seeks out another CIA purge target, Outcome physician Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), in an effort to find more of the necessary medication. Without the drugs, Cross and Shearing don’t stand a chance against Byer’s ruthless (and blood-drenched) attempt at containing Blackbriar fallout.
It’s an intriguing setup, even if much of the film is centered around chasing down a MacGuffin, and despite this stock man-on-the-run format, there are some truly engaging plot developments and character moments. However viewers who haven’t recently watched the prior Bourne films (especially Ultimatum) will be wishing they’d prepped for Legacy with a refresher screening. Even though Jason Bourne appears in name (and static image) only – the plot spends a lot of time casually referring to the character (and the events surrounding him) as if they were common knowledge. Even for those who can easily recall the core Bourne storyline (loaded with covert names, government cover-ups, etc), the film will still get bogged down in disconnected exposition. That said, anyone who can’t easily recall prior plot elements and characters (especially Operation Blackbriar, “Pam” Landy, and Dr. Albert Hirsch) will likely feel as though the characters cut away from the Aaron Cross situation too often – in favor of reacting to a person who isn’t actually in this film.
The whole setup creates a weird introduction for the Cross character, and Renner, to his credit, still manages to make it work. While The Bourne Legacy doesn’t always make it easy to accept the new leading man (since it spends loads of time winking at the last one), Renner helps ground Cross with the same balance of compassion and ruthless neck snapping that fans of the series have come to expect from rogue Treadstone operatives. At this point, the Cross storyline isn’t as rich as Bourne (who spent a lot of time attempting to uncover his past) but scene-to-scene the character provides enough intrigue to keep his freshman outing interesting.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Norton’s Eric Byer – who, in spite of a fascinatingly grey morality, does little more than sit in a CIA operations room and react to various pieces of information that other agents present to him. He’s an exposition machine and very little connects Byer to the outside action – significantly limiting the character’s utility and intrigue.
Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing is in the same camp – the film attempts to position her as a unique foil to Cross, but unfortunately the character is mostly led around out of fear and (for the most part) is relegated to typical action movie damsel tropes. The filmmakers were clearly trying for something deeper – as Shearling enjoys a competent backstory and some compelling character moments. However, despite a solid performance from Weisz, who plays Shearling with an entirely straight face, the character’s beat-by-beat endeavors are more reminiscent of a typical popcorn action heroine – not the gritty and realistic approach that comes standard with a Bourne experience.
Fortunately, that “realism” is definitely present in the film’s action beats – which offer a nice break from the overabundance of CGI-heavy movies Hollywood typically churns out. Renner’s hand-to-hand combat is hard hitting and exciting to watch – especially when the character is first on the lamb (and out-gunned). Creative use of various filming locations has always been a strong suit for the series, and while Legacy has difficulty living up to set pieces in the Paul Greengrass (and Doug Liman) installments, there are a number of memorable scenes this round as well. Some of the chase sequences are symptomatic of the film’s bloated runtime, grinding on a bit too long, but that hardly detracts from the moment-to-moment fun.
Most moviegoers will find enjoyment in The Bourne Legacy – as it offers the same government conspiracy storylines and “realistic” action beats as its predecessors. However, the film is a step down from the Matt Damon trilogy in nearly every way imaginable – presenting a less compelling protagonist (though there’s room to flesh him out in future installments), an increasingly convoluted overarching plot, and drawn-out action with a softer payoff. Legacy is by no means a bad film, it just, ironically, has trouble living up to the real world Jason Bourne “legacy.” As a result, the movie will at the same time confirm the misgivings of cynics while providing enough of an entertaining ride to keep moviegoers interested in the possibility of a Bourne 5 (especially if there’s hope for some Jason Bourne/Aaron Cross face-time).
If you’re still on the fence about The Bourne Legacy, check out the trailer below:
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out The Bourne Legacy episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Bourne Legacy Spoilers Discussion.
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The Bourne Legacy is rated PG-13 for violence and action sequences. Now playing in theaters.