The Bourne Legacy
occupies a fairly unique place in the history of movie franchises. It’s not a direct sequel to the trilogy of 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
), 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.
Dismantling Outcome means not only erasing all records of its existence, but programming a scientist to shoot up the lab that developed the drugs, killing all of his colleagues but one, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz)—and eliminating every Outcome agent in the field. That rather extreme measure seems to stretch credulity even in the realm of the Bourne world, where it’s long been established that the CIA will readily deploy teams around the world to eliminate rogue agents. The absurdity of that overreaction is even raised in the movie itself, when one of Norton’s customers, a general, points out that they’ve never managed to penetrate the Pakistani intelligence service ISS before a particularly effective Outcome agent managed to do so. That actually sounds to me like a pretty effective argument for not
terminating at least that particular deep-cover agent, but Norton believes firmly that all living evidence of Outcome must be eliminated. That also includes ace operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who’s currently on a training exercise in Alaska where he manages to best the previous time on the survival course by two whole days. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so, he loses the pills, or “chems,” on which he depends for his enhanced abilities. (All Outcome agents store their pills in specially designed dogtags/pill holders… which doesn’t seem all that clever, really. If Q worked for Outcome, he’d outfit the operatives with everyday items like watches or jewelry in which to secret their chems, rather than risk the indelicate question of why the ISS’s latest recruit clings to American-issue dogtags!)
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.
Cross’s quest first takes him to the secluded home of Dr. Marta Shearing, and not a second too soon, either. A hit squad deployed by Norton has just turned up at her abode, which leads to the film’s most impressive shoot-out during which Renner demonstrates that he’s got all the action chops of Matt Damon. The two Outcome refugees go on the run together, heading for Manila where the drugs are manufactured. We’re treated to some cool and very Ludlumy spycraft as Cross forges them fake passports and plots their egress from the country. Then we cut to the operations room where Norton’s got people searching every passenger manifest and airport security tape looking for the fugitives. It’s in these effective scenes that The Bourne Legacy
feels most akin to its predecessors; audiences are used to teams of analysts staring at computer screens hunting for AWOL agents.
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.
Once Cross and Marta are on the motorcycle, comparisons to James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies
become inevitable. No, Bond wasn’t the first spy to ride a motorcycle (Coplan, Cotton and Helm all beat him to it back in the Sixties), but Tomorrow Never Dies
really managed to define the motorcycle chase with a man and a woman on the same bike at once. When that concept popped up in Knight & Day
) 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
it in Green Zone
). 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
), 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.
At the end of the day, The Bourne Legacy
is an effective enough action movie that delivers in some crucial areas (Renner and Weisz are fantastic, the Manila locations are impressive, and the scenes of pasty bureaucrats and analysts yelling at each other about shutting down programs and tracking rogue agents carry enough urgency to propel the story even if you have no idea what’s actually going on), but fails in others. The Flowers for Algernon
angle was an interesting idea, but didn’t ultimately work for me as the engine driving an espionage thriller. It also raises more questions than it answers. I can buy that Cross will cross oceans and battle enemy agents to keep his IQ from dropping back down to sub-normal levels, but I’m not sure why the government decided to use this medicine on a dummy to begin with. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with a fairly intelligent individual (or a bona fide genius, like Marta), and then jolt their IQ into the stratosphere instead of spending billions of taxpayer dollars making a somewhat challenged individual smart enough to calculate exit strategies? Ultimately, Cross’s quest to maintain his intelligence pales in comparison to Bourne’s search for his true identity.
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.
The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of Trevayne
Read my book review of The Bourne Ultimatum
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant
Read my book review of The Janson Directive
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity
Read my movie review of The Bourne Ultimatum
Read my movie review of The Bourne Legacy