As everyone knows, franchises are Hollywood’s bread and butter. Yes, the bread is usually stale and the butter has been sitting out long enough that it’s getting hard on the outside, but that doesn’t matter to your average moviegoer, who generally hates cinematic surprises of any kind. There are movies, and then there are sequels, and then there are spinoffs, and then there are prequels, and then there are reboots, and then there are remakes. We accept this as the standard way of things, the blockbuster circle of life.
So what, exactly, is The Bourne Legacy?
It’s not a reboot, because it carries on with the story started in the first three Bourne movies. It’s not exactly a sequel, because not only does it follow an almost completely new set of characters, it’s not even about the same line of genetically-enhanced uber-spies.The closest definition is a spinoff, but The Bourne Legacy is terrified of spinning off too far from its source. The movie is dead set on reminding us that Bourne is still out there! as often as possible, teasing us with connections to the Matt Damon trilogy, and then, just as easily, throwing all that out the window in favor of an irrelevant story.
Let’s be clear — I was just fine with a Matt Damon-less, Bourne-less Bourne movie. The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum were all top-notch thrillers. Particularly the latter two, directed by Paul Greengrass. And while I liked Matt Damon quite a bit in the title role, I wasn’t sure he was so essential to the series’ success that someone else couldn’t have fit the bill just as nicely. Had they cast Alex Pettyfer or Liam Hemsworth as the Bourne successor, I would have grumbled a bit. But Jeremy Renner seemed the perfect actor to fill Matt Damon’s shoes, a man who has proven he can both emote and kick ass. Plus, The Bourne Legacy had Tony Gilroy co-writing and directing and an intriguing supporting cast that included Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz. I was all set to be re-Bourne-d.
But as the marketing makes clear, Universal wants audiences to be really, really certain that this is a Jason Bourne movie. “There was never just one!” the posters proclaim. (True. We knew that already.) Many lines of dialogue seem to be written specifically for the trailer, to explain in brief sound bytes why this Bourne movie does not, in fact, star Matt Damon. (Except in the form of photographs.) The Bourne Legacy is a lot more preoccupied with what Jason Bourne is doing than any moviegoers are likely to be. We know where Bourne is — we got that out of our system in the last movie. New story, please!
The trouble is, it’s all talk. Matt Damon is not in this movie. Jason Bourne is not in this movie. Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Paddy Considine, and Joan Allen are just barely in it. Why? The cameos do nothing to further the story of The Bourne Legacy. They are mere reminders that whatever is going on in The Bourne Legacy, there is something more interesting going on elsewhere. It’s not really The Bourne Legacy‘s fault that the original Bourne trilogy is so compelling, but there it is. These constant reminders just make us want to go home and pop in The Bourne Supremacy again.
I haven’t even mentioned the hero of this movie, Aaron Cross, because he does play second fiddle to the phantom Bourne. (All the higher-ups are way more concerned about what Jason’s up to. A renegade Aaron Cross seems like a minor inconvenience.) Cross is capably portrayed by Jeremy Renner, who, iin The Hurt Locker, The Avengers, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, proved he’s got the chops to be an action star. But as written and as played, Cross is less personable than Bourne ever was, with a bigger chip on his shoulder that we know much less about. Bourne’s amnesia made him instantly relatable; we could imagine waking up with a headache one day and discovering, “Surprise! I’m a superhero!” What little we learn about Cross isn’t nearly so interesting. He seems like a decent guy, maybe. We don’t know for sure. It turns out, Cross isn’t a part of Treadstone like Bourne was. He’s part of a kind-of-different-but-not-really project that was running concurrently, which seems unnecessary. Like when The Lost World: Jurassic Park revealed there was a second island of dinosaurs all along! Because why build one when you can build two at twice the price? Fine, okay, let’s go with that. Two Treadstones.
Aaron Cross finds himself protecting a scientist named Marta, played by the fetching Rachel Weisz. Marta is the sole survivor of a shooting at her lab that silences all the top scientists except herself, and Aaron wants her to get access to the drugs that make him good at parkour and stuff. This is The Bourne Legacy‘s deftest move, because the romance between Matt Damon and Franka Potente in the first movie was one of the things that made it so endearing. Bourne eventually became a lone wolf, but his brief love affair with Marie humanized him so that we still cared in later movies. Aaron and Marta don’t get many chances to canoodle, but having Rachel Weisz around never hurts. She’s a wonderful asset to the film.The same can’t really be said for any of the other additions to the franchise. Edward Norton is, of course, a compelling actor, but his character is the same one-note villain we’ve seen in pretty much every movie of the series, and there’s no arc or resolution for him. Oscar Isaac has a brief, promising role as “Outcome #3” — from the same program as Cross, perhaps? — but, well, let’s just say there’s a reason this hasn’t been billed as a buddy movie. (Though, if The Bourne Legacy were really interested in taking things in a new direction — which it clearly isn’t — that might’ve been the way to go. Two of the assets working side by side.) There’s a Terminator-like opponent from yet another program (apparently, there were never just two, either); he is formidable enough, providing an extended chase sequence through Manila in the film’s third act. But mostly, these things are just recycled from other Bourne films, with no intention of actually adding anything new to the franchise.
Okay, so there there two, or three, or twelve programs just like Treadstone. So what? Are a bunch of sinister top-secret government programs meant to be more frightening than just the one? Plenty of movies leave room for sequels, but The Bourne Legacy leaves room for about three separate spin-offs with all those secret assassins supposedly floating around. I could have gotten into a movie about a bunch of assassins from various government programs all working against one another. That would be pretty cool! But as its title suggests, The Bourne Legacy is too concerned with the phantom Bourne to really break off and be its own slice of entertainment, which doesn’t really work when ultimately nothing that Jason Bourne does has much consequence here. It’s rather insane, when you think about it — Matt Damon is the star of this movie, and he’s not even in it! This is the summer blockbuster equivalent of Waiting For Godot.
If I’m coming across as pretty critical of The Bourne Legacy, I will say that it goes down easy when you’re watching it. It’s competent. There are a few tense set pieces, mostly involving people who want to shoot Marta. But Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the other Bourne films, is an unfortunately uninspired choice to direct after two such masterful efforts from Paul Greengrass (and the initial outing by Doug Liman, which got all the character stuff right). The real problem is the story, which starts off incomprehensible and takes its time before giving us a reason to care. Without our built-in sympathy for Jason Bourne, the movie needs to give us more to like about Aaron Cross right off the bat, and if we’re going to be following a bunch of new characters and a new program, why not follow a new formula as well? Why not throw in a twist or two? There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Most criminal of all — I was under the impression that Joan Allen would be in this movie to reprise her role as Pam Landy, but she’s really not. She has one line. So why include her? Why stuff this movie with familiar faces and then do nothing intriguing with them? Why remind us of those three superior movies? I understand the reason to keep Bourne in the title — who’s going to pay any attention to The Cross Memorandum, or whatever? — but there’s no reason to keep mentioning plot points from the first trilogy unless they affect this one. (I kept waiting for them to get caught in one of Bourne’s famous car chase traffic jams, or something.) I was hoping we might see Pam Landy actually do something that involves Aaron Cross, and now I’m disappointed. You just don’t fuck around with pretending Joan Allen is in a movie when she isn’t. You just don’t do that to people.
The movie ends to the familiar tune of Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” which so perfectly closed out the last three movies. Here, it’s just kind of awkward. Shouldn’t Aaron Cross get his own music? Is Bourne watching from somewhere? There’s not really any sense of closure, nor is there an ominous reminder that there are still a lot of bad guys doing very bad things out there. It just abruptly ends, and the only way you know it is because of the Moby song.
Will Renner be back for a sequel? Will Damon? If they make another Bourne movie with Bourne, will Aaron Cross have to be in it? Or have we all just accepted that he was just keeping the seat warm for Matt Damon, and we’ll pretend this never happened? And if they make another Bourne movie with just Aaron Cross, will they still try to get away with naming it after a character who’s not in the movie? Why not name it The Luke Skywalker Referendum? No, it doesn’t have anything to do with Luke Skywalker, but hey — it doesn’t have much to do with Jason Bourne, either.