Matt Damon Bourne movies, because the character Jason Bourne isn’t in it. It’s not a continuation of that series, either. (And it’s definitely not an adaptation of the Eric van Lustbader’s novel of the same name, which continued the story of the amnesiac spy beyond author Robert Ludlum’s trilogy.) Rather than moving forward in time and building on events of The Bourne Ultimatum (review here), it takes place concurrently with those events. That’s potentially a very cool idea. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t really take full advantage of that conceit. The trailers made it look like it cleverly interconnected with the events of Ultimatum, but it doesn’t. Bourne surrogate Aaron Cross’s mission has nothing to do with Jason Bourne’s. The connection is pretty tenuous, in fact. We’re asked to believe that Bourne’s exposure of the top secret Treadstone program (in which the CIA trained super-assassins) and the subsequent Senate hearings leads shadowy intelligence honcho Ed Norton (playing "Retired Col. Eric Byer, USAF," who I’m not sure is ever addressed by name on screen) to completely dismantle the similar Outcome program. Outcome does Treadstone one better because its agents aren’t just trained to be the best assassins they can be; they’re enhanced to be so via a steady regimen of pills that make them smarter, faster, better. The green pills increase their strength, and the blue pills enhance their minds.
Thus getting ahold of new pills becomes Cross’s sole objective, the engine that drives him—and the film—for the ensuing two plus hours. While you might be asking yourself how badly he really needs super strength and super intelligence when he already seems to be in pretty amazing shape, that’s addressed in a reveal about halfway through the movie: Cross’s intelligence isn’t being increased to super-genius levels; it’s being raised to normal levels. He was previously a soldier with a very low IQ (his recruiter had to add points to reach the Army's "minimum standard") who volunteered for the Outcome program and earned himself a serious boost. Writer-director Tony Gilroy takes a page out of Flowers for Algernon (or, as I immediately thought of it, the various Simpsons take-offs on that premise in which Homer’s intelligence is increased by removing a crayon from his brain or Lisa thinks hers will be reduced when the Simpson Gene kicks in at her next birthday). Aaron Cross must find some chems, or else his mind will regress to sub-normal levels.
In Manila comes the film’s next major action setpiece. It’s kind of odd in a Bourne film (or a film with the name Bourne in the title, anyway) that there are really only two major action setpieces involving the hero (this and the shootout at the house), but Gilroy attempts to auto-correct for that by making this one a plus-size extravaganza. The final chase through the streets of Manila finds Cross first on foot—running across the rooftops, engaging in the Filipino martial art Kali, and pulling off the film’s signature stunt (which you’ve no doubt seen in the trailers) wherein he leaps from a rooftop into an ally, landing on a policeman and taking him out—and then on a motorcycle.
here) with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, it was impossible not to recall the 007 film, and the same is true here—particularly given the somewhat similar setting. (Bond was in Saigon.) The Bond comparisons don’t end with Marta’s presence on the motorcycle, however. While Bourne chases have, in previous films, felt firmly grounded in reality, this one takes on the more over-the-top, credibility-straining tenor of a Bond chase as soon as Cross plants his motorcycle atop a railing to get around the throngs of people ascending and descending some public stairs. He then slides down, with the wheels straddling the rail. It’s a very Bondian maneuver. I mention this by way of observation rather than criticism. Obviously I enjoy a good Bond-style chase scene; I just think it’s worth noting this slight shift in tone for the Bourne series.
Overall, the Manila-set mega-chase is pretty impressive. For starters, the scenery is exotic, which I always want out of a spy movie. While there were some good spy chases in that city back in the Seventies when the Philippines had no safety laws governing film shoots (Wonder Women springs readily to mind), we haven’t seen a Western spy movie set there in quite some time. This is the kind of setting I want in a Bourne movie, in keeping with the clogged European streets of the first two films, or the bustling Tangier rooftops of the third. Furthermore, where Gilroy really breaks new ground in this chase is with the crowds. Sure, there were crowds in the Tomorrow Never Dies chase, but not this level of crowds! The streets Cross navigates are positively teeming with people, presenting near-constant obstacles for someone trying to make a quick escape. Every citizen of Manila must have been employed as an extra!
On the downside, the lengthy chase does overstay its welcome a bit as Cross and Marta are relentlessly pursued by an unstoppable Filipino Terminator. Actually, the pursuer is a sleeper agent from yet another Treadstone-inspired super soldier program even better than Outcome, Larx, which is described as “Treadstone without the inconsistencies” because it strips its agents of all emotion. But with his ever-present sunglasses, motorcycle and seeming invincibility, you fully expect to hear the strains of Brad Fiedel’s Terminator theme every time he’s shown! The chase also suffers, to some degree, from the overly-rapid editing that’s plagued any number of action movies in the post-Greengrass era. Greengrass himself required one film to practice this style (the flawed Bourne Supremacy) before honing it in Ultimatum and perfecting it in Green Zone (review here). Nearly every imitator (and there have been lots) has failed to replicate his urgent, immediate action scenes. Gilroy pulls it off with much greater success than Marc Forster did in Quantum of Solace (review here), but unfortunately there are still moments when potentially great stunts are wasted because the viewer isn’t oriented, and gets no sense of how they relate to the space around them. This is the result primarily of editing, however. Gilroy is remarkably restrained and for the most part doesn’t attempt to ape Greengrass’s patented shaky-cam photography, only his rapid-fire editing.
The movie also fails in tying fully into what’s come before. Sure, a host of familiar faces from the earlier films (Albert Finney, David Straithairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn) are paraded briefly across the screen to do just that, but the actual connection is too flimsy to merit the Bourne Legacy title. In terms of ties to Bourne himself, I liked the subtler ones, such as when the camera nonchalantly moves past the name “Jason Bourne” carved in the bunk Cross is sleeping in on his training course, but not the overly obvious ones like when it then jerks back and focuses on that carving as the music kicks in big-time. I also felt like the Moby song “Extreme Ways (Bourne’s Theme)” was out of place when it kicked in at the end of this film. As the title says, that’s Bourne’s theme (even if this remix is cleverly subtitled "Bourne's Legacy"); shouldn’t Aaron Cross have his own? Besides that, however, the music is good. James Newton-Howard does a fine job providing bombastic action cues that feel of a piece with John Powell’s signature scores for the previous movies, yet different enough to set this one apart.
Ultimately, I think The Bourne Legacy is let down by the “Bourne” in its title—or perhaps it lets down that brand. It’s a fine action film in its own right with a compelling lead and some memorable moments, but it doesn’t live up to the thrilling brilliance of The Bourne Ultimatum. That said, I would welcome another installment that managed to team up Damon and Renner.