There are few movie franchises that are able to sustain audience interest as far as a fourth instalment, and although The Bourne Legacy manages to pack in the same amount of excitement and action as the three recent movies based on Robert Ludlum’s signature character Jason Bourne, the occasional feeling of déjà vu makes you wonder whether a semi-reboot like this was really necessary at all (though Tinseltown’s bean counters will argue that $270 million dollars says it was extremely necessary). Still, considering the behind-the-scenes events during the initial stages of the movie’s development, it’s something of an achievement that the film itself is fairly enjoyable even if it doesn’t pull up any trees.
After the director Paul Greengrass decided he wanted to move on from the franchise Matt Damon, who played rogue CIA special agent Bourne in the previous three films, also stated that he did not wish to return for The Bourne Legacy. With a script already in development since late 2008 this was something of a blow for Universal Pictures, but Tony Gilroy – who co-wrote the earlier Bourne screenplays – was employed to develop a script with his brother Dan, who has himself recently been in the headlines due to the success of his film Nightcrawler. Eventually Tony Gilroy was announced as the director of ‘Bourne 4’ and Jeremy Renner was cast as a rogue CIA agent named Aaron Cross, whose story bears some similarities to that of Bourne.
While the public announcements made by Greengrass and Damon in order to distance themselves from the project hogged the headlines, the largely-unreported move to keep Tony Gilroy involved was a shrewd one, and both his writing and direction successfully continue the themes, traditions and tone of the earlier films; he manages to simultaneously dissociate the new story from the three prior efforts while keeping some background continuity that ties The Bourne Legacy to the earlier Greengrass and Doug Liman movies. The steps that are taken in a new direction are clearly tentative, but Gilroy and his cast and crew have kept the franchise alive: both Damon and Greengrass have confirmed they will return for a fifth film, though Renner will not appear in it; however a second Aaron Cross-related film is still in development.
The plot will seem familiar to Bourne fans, although The Bourne Legacy actually bears little resemblance to Eric von Lustbader’s 2004 novel of the same name. Cross, who is part of a covert black ops team of special agents collectively known as ‘Operation Outcome’, is first seen training in Alaska while events depicted in the previous film, The Bourne Ultimatum, play out in the background. That earlier movie ended with several high flying CIA staff – played by Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn, all of whom return here briefly – facing investigation after the illegal adaptations of two covert CIA operations named Blackbriar and Treadstone were exposed by Bourne. In The Bourne Legacy a YouTube video ties Operation Outcome to the already-compromised Blackbriar and Treadstone and the director of the former, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), decides to shut down Outcome before it can be investigated. Naturally ‘shut down’ in this series is CIA shorthand for ‘cover your tracks by killing everyone involved’.
What follows is basically a re-tread of the earlier trilogy with a few added bells and whistles: Cross must go on the run while the CIA attempts to locate and kill him, though the main difference here is the presence of experimental pills, called ‘chems’, that the agent must take in order to enhance his physical and mental abilities. Where Damon’s Bourne grappled with on-going amnesia, Cross must fight his addiction to the tablets, and Renner’s junkie-style desperation is convincing, although it’s a side of his performance that eventually gets lost amid all the flying fists. Eventually the agent hooks up with a travelling companion, a biochemist involved in the Outcome programme named Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has also become a target of the Agency.
The Bourne Legacy globe-trots like its predecessors, with the action shifting from Alaska across the USA and finally ending up in the Philippines, where Cross and Shearing are targeted by a chemically-brainwashed CIA sleeper agent (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien). The main problem with the film is that aside from two or three very well-executed set pieces much of it looks utterly familiar, and at times while watching the film it’s a bit like having amnesia yourself, with vague misty memories of the earlier movies occasionally becoming clear thanks to repetition here. There’s yet another high-octane rooftop chase scene, for example, and a cat-and-mouse fight at a rural house that recalls the showdown between Clive Owen and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. A car and motorbike chase finale – despite being as thrilling as it is technically impressive – also brings to mind the similar feats of driving in the earlier films, and when the movie concludes on the exact same note as The Bourne Identity it’s hard not to feel a little short-changed.
Still, as action films go, this does have a lot going for it: the chases may be overly-familiar but they’re still good, the quickfire hand-to-hand combat remains pulsating, and there are a few early moments that suggest there’s a bit of life in the franchise yet: Oscar Isaac shines as a cautious super-agent early on, there is some exciting footage involving a military drone and there is a gripping scene involving a pack of predatory Alaskan wolves. The Bourne Legacy even manages to genuinely shock with a disturbing cold-blooded massacre sequence, a sequence that trumps the surprise death of a major character in The Bourne Supremacy.
Unfortunately, though, it looks as if Gilroy ran out of ideas when it came to the CIA. Following a host of duplicitous characters and back-stabbing incidents in the other films it’s hardly a surprise to witness further ruthless behaviour by high-ranking Agency officials as they seek to wipe out all traces of Operation Outcome, and sympathetic CIA figures are notably absent here. Norton is fine, as is Stacy Keach (playing a retired Navy admiral), but there’s a seemingly endless supply of those panicky, pressure-cooker control room scenes where orders are barked and reports arrive that reveal Cross has once again escaped with his life. After a while they all blend into one another and it’s too easy to tune out as the dialogue spoken barely matters at all.
As a cinematic spy hero Jason Bourne has often been compared with James Bond, despite the many differences between the two characters, and the success of Damon’s original effort with Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity, is famously credited as being the reason for the subsequent tougher change of direction in the Bond franchise. It would seem that the Bourne series now has its own equivalent of the 1967 version of Casino Royale, or the return of Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, an oddity that sits apart from everything else but remains enjoyable enough nonetheless. Despite the fact it regurgitates old ideas and characters The Bourne Legacy is a decent action thriller, but when all is said and done … can you imagine a James Bond film that doesn’t feature James Bond? That’d be pointless, right?
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Written by: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn
Running Time: 135 minutes