If The Bourne Identity is really a movie about a man trying to discover who he really is, The Bourne Legacy is a movie about a man trying to escape who he really is. Jeremy Renner stars as Aaron Cross, a government agent who derives his nearly superhuman abilities from popping special, government-issued pills. Thanks to Jason Bourne’s antics from the previous movies, however, higher ups in the federal government have decided to destroy their experimental spy programs in anticipation of the coming media backlash. This causes the well of wonderful, gene-altering drugs to run dry, and leaves Cross running from shadowy government operatives who want him dead.
Also caught up in the maelstrom of violence is Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a virology expert responsible, in part, for synthesizing the drugs. After wiping out all field operatives (except Cross, of course) Col. Eric Byer (a haggard Edward Norton) turns his attention on killing all scientists involved with the project. Cross needs the doctor to lead him to more pills before he sinks into withdrawal, and Shearing needs Cross in order to stay alive. As the two run from the United States government, they find plenty of opportunities to engage in fist fights, gun battles, and motorcycle chases. Meanwhile, the specter of Matt Damon’s slightly superior films hangs over the proceedings like a pall.
On the whole, The Bourne Legacy is a fine spy thriller. Tony Gilroy, pulling writing and directing duties this time around, works from an original story, but delivers everything we’ve come to expect from a Bourne movie. He directs vicious fist fights, running gun battles, and elaborate foot chases with steadier hand than his predecessors Paul Greengrass and Doug Liman; only in a final climactic motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila, Philippines does the action become too chaotic to follow. The casting, a highlight of the series, remains strong with newcomers to the franchise, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton, turning in reliably decent performances.
The screenplay from Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy is something of a mixed bag, taking just a little too long to kick into high gear. Early on, the writers desperately attempt to tie this entry back into the first three movies with mediocre results. Jason Bourne essentially incites the government to go after our two protagonists, but beyond that he doesn’t factor into the movie. The Bourne Legacy is a parallel story, occurring at the same time as the events of The Bourne Supremacy. Matt Damon never turns in an appearance in the movie, and Aaron’s nation-leaping hunt to feed his addiction never overlaps with the events of the earlier movies. A good ten minutes of people in computer lit rooms jabbering in spy jargon about Jason Bourne could have been excised from the film and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Once the screenplay begins to hone in on Cross and Shearing, however, The Bourne Legacy gains traction. Gilroy’s dialogue is sharp and Cross’s dilemma offers a nice change of pace from the previous movies. A fascinating subplot in the movie involves Shearing offering Cross the opportunity to have his DNA permanently altered by having a virus injected into his body. Once he recovers from the flu-like symptoms of the virus, we’re told, he’ll never have to take performance enhancing pills to maintain his abilities again.
That addition to the storyline makes this the first Bourne film to be elevated to the realm of science fiction, but I understand that the science behind the fiction is entirely plausible, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this aspect of the film is eventually regarded as prophetic. It’s also a nice way of bring author Robert Ludlum’s world, mostly conceived and published in the ‘70s and ‘80s, into the 21st century.
So the supporting cast is great, the director is fine, and the screenplay is decent, but how does Jeremy Renner perform as the new face of the Bourne series? I think he does a great job making us temporarily forget about Matt Damon. With roles in The Avengers, the Mission Impossible series, and now in the Bourne series, Renner is primed to be Hollywood’s next great action star. I’m not entirely sure why Hollywood is trying to push Renner onto us an action hero, but I’m not opposed.
The man isn’t classically handsome and he hasn’t cultivated much of a star persona, but he’s a great actor. He tackles all of his roles with a quiet intensity that’s thoroughly convincing. Here, he manages to take the potentially absurd role of a secret agent addicted to performance enhancing drugs and ground it. After seeing The Bourne Legacy I can’t imagine an actor better suited for the role.
All in all, The Bourne Legacy isn’t perfect—it suffers from some pacing issues resulting from the filmmakers’ clumsy attempts to tie this story into the Matt Damon movies and a couple of incomprehensible action scenes—but the cast and crew have still managed provide a worthy entry in the Bourne saga.