(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on August 10, 2012.)
Author Robert Ludlum published a trilogy of novels concerning a man named Jason Bourne from 1980 through 1990, starting with The Bourne Identity. The Bourne Supremacy was published in 1986, followed relatively shortly by the final installment, The Bourne Ultimatum. In 2002, Swingers director Doug Liman helmed an adaptation of The Bourne Identity, which ushered in a new era of action movies characterized by very simple, brutally realistic action sequences, the dismissal of gratuitous gun-fu slow motion (the type made popular by Hong Kong director John Woo), and a gritty, almost documentary-like feel throughout. Paul Greengrass took over the directing reins for the last two movies, …Supremacy in 2004 and …Ultimatum in 2007, effectively ending the Jason Bourne storyline, just as Ludlum’s novels had done. The plots of the novels and movies diverge completely starting with the first movie, with the latter two movies being name-only adaptations, not having anything to do with the novels’ plots.
With the popularity that the 2002 movie brought to Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels one year after his death, his publishers decided to resurrect Jason Bourne through a series of ghostwritten novels. Since 2004, seven new Bourne novels by Eric Van Lustbader have been released, all in an effort to cash in on the success of the films. Much like Van Lustbader’s novels, Universal Studios is seeking to capitalize on the already-successful Bourne franchise by extending the mythos of the filmic Bourne universe through a completely new character peripheral to the “training programs” detailed in the first three movies. Is this new film, The Bourne Legacy necessary? No – it’s yet another remake/reboot-era empty cash-grab with nothing much to say. Is it fun? Surprisingly, yes. However, this is one of those movies where fun is had more through its flashy action sequences, not substance.
Events that started in Greengrass’ …Ultimatum are shown as the catalysts for everything that The Bourne Legacy has to offer. The Bourne Legacy brings a new operative into the fray – an agent named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who is training in a chemical beta program called Outcome, a sibling to the program responsible for Jason Bourne. Because of Bourne’s revelations to Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and her subsequent outing of the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs, the Outcome program and others like it need to be burned and swept under the rug before more public blowback can occur. Escaping assassination attempts by the National Research Assay Group (“NRAG”, who are apparently above the Central Intelligence Agency in this regard), Cross finds the one person who could possibly help him with his “chems”, as they are important to his high-functioning operating status: Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), whose research is used by NRAG to create super-soldiers through biomedical change at the molecular level.
At the heart of it, that’s what the story is about. The script may try to make things seem more juicily complicated, but that’s all that it is. It’s a race against time to cure somebody before bad things start to happen. However, they still have to dodge NRAG assassins and arrest attempts, and that’s where the fun is. With Jason Bourne, we saw a character that seemed to be three steps ahead of his aggressors, playing a live game of human chess, complete with lateral strategizing and lucky anticipation. Aaron Cross seems to be more a reactive man rather than proactive; however, he’s not trying to bring down his superiors, as Bourne was trying to do. He’s just trying to stay alive, and will use any and all equivalent means (e.g., if someone’s armed with a gun, that’s what he’ll use) to do so. The cat-and-mouse games are always fun to watch, with foot races, motorcycle chases, martial arts kickfests, and good ol’ fashioned espionage thrown in for excitement.
What’s wrong with The Bourne Legacy is that instead of letting it be its own entity, it tries so hard to compete even to just be considered as another film in the series. Everything that has been previously done in the Bourne films is trotted out here, but it seems to be done less successfully through an overabundance of overdoing. (If that makes any sense to anyone but me, more power to you.) The rooftop chase across a sprawling shantytown was okay, but not as great as the one found in …Ultimatum; the romance between the agent and the woman shoehorned into the sidekick role borders on cliché at this point; and most importantly, the dialogue is forced and nearly in the realm of “abominable”. While Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton and Stacy Keach do their level best with the script and actually elevate the dialogue out of the poorly-written hell from where it seems to be born, some of it just clangs with repetition and poor editing.
(Yes, I’m looking at you, o dialogue-crammed exposition scene after Cross stops the car… you’ll see what I mean.)
The second-best aspect of the movie was watching the odd roles that Norton and Keach are given. Here, they play two men tasked with eliminating every trace of their assassin training programs, including the humans they refer to as “assets”. While they’re not exactly villains, they are wearily regretful of the fact that they have to kill in order to preserve their sacrosanct jobs and what they feel might be the future of the security of the United States of America; they consider themselves a necessary evil, but to them, it’s just a job. It’s no more of a job than anyone working at a desk on some task in order to meet a deadline. They kind of embody the spirit of the movie to me; just as they’ve been assigned to burn their assets, so has the studio has decreed that this relatively unnecessary sidequel get made. It may not be a pretty task, but they’ll do as much as they can to fulfill expectations. Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who also co-wrote the first three Bourne films, has turned in a serviceable film that rises to a medium pitch and stays there without going anywhere exciting. The Bourne Legacy is a mild disappointment, but it’s not an abject failure.
p.s. [Oh, and yeah – the first-best aspect? The entire third act (minus the perfunctory, shallow epilogue), as its location means a lot to me. It’s a location not used frequently in Western cinema; it made me smile and say to myself while pointing at the screen, “Hey, I’ve been there – I’ve been there – and hey, there’s where my cousin got married –“ and other such things throughout the act’s entirety. I’m keeping it vague, as its revelation may be considered a spoiler.]