There Was Never Just One.
After five years the Bourne franchise is back, only not quite as we know it.
Rather than reboot the popular film series from scratch (c.f. Spiderman) or just continue it merely using a different actor (a la Bond), the Studios have chosen an unusual middle-ground: keep the Bourne name in the title, but change the lead character, effectively telling a parallel ‘origin’ story of another highly-trained superspy, who happened to be left out in the cold largely as a result of the events surrounding Jason Bourne himself. Indeed, once you get past the fact that it feels like they are shamelessly milking the name of the franchise’s most famous asset, you soon realise that it is actually quite an appropriate title: this is, after all, Bourne’s legacy.
Paralleling the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, the movie widens the back-story to encompass not only Bourne, but also the plight of his engineered superspy brethren. After things go pear-shaped with the containment of Bourne, retired Colonel Eric Byer is brought in to handle the situation. He makes the decision to cull all of the potentially incriminating personnel in the Outcome program of genetically-modified super-spies in order to prevent Bourne’s revelations about the Blackbriar and Treadstone assassination projects from leading back to the CIA Director himself, Ezra Kramer.
After an explosive assassination attempt Outcome operatives Aaron Cross manages to fake his own death, and goes looking for answers from one of the last remaining scientists on the project, Dr. Marta Shearing – herself a target after she somehow survives her entire team getting killed at their black-ops research facility. Between them, they have to put together the pieces of the puzzle, all the while evading ever-increasing enemy opposition, and in the full knowledge that – without any more of his administered medication supply, Cross will slowly lose his mental faculties and no longer be able to keep them safe.
I loved the Bourne movies. Sure, they introduced the world to shaky-cam – a ‘style’ of camerawork designed to make action sequences more frenetic but less clear, which is now all too often employed to blur any violence in order to avoid breaking the PG-13 rating in much the same way as the found-footage style is often over-used to disguise a film’s budget – but they also changed the course of the entire Bond franchise, and raised the bar for action movies across the field.
Having a greater impact than even The Matrix, the Bourne films, perhaps the second one even more than the first, set the standard for what audiences wanted to see from spy action-thrillers. Daniel Craig’s Bond – again even more so in his second outing, Quantum of Solace – was completely defined by the design of Bourne, and numerous would-be contenders have also followed suit since, including Mark Wahlberg in Shooter, with even the more character-driven Safe House using shaky-cam fight sequences to give us more hand-to-hand action from Denzel Washington than we had ever seen before.
Yet, though I loved the fresh and original Bourne Identity, and the superior Bourne Supremacy – basically a frantic, exhausting non-stop chase-sequence-revenge-thriller – it was hard to avoid the realisation that things were beginning to fizzle out with The Bourne Ultimatum. Even ignoring the fact that Matt Damon was getting older (after all, the original Bourne character from the novels was considerably older than Damon is even now), the motivation for the character was starting to become a bit contrived. Thankfully the action was still good – if unnecessarily repeating the same action beats as Supremacy – and there were still many worthy elements of closure attached to the project, with Damon’s Bourne finally coming full-circle and discovering the truth behind who he really was: “look at what they make us give”.
Honestly, I can see why both Damon and regular series director Paul Greengrass were conflicted over the idea of returning to the franchise for a further instalment. Sure, there were plenty of books to use for inspiration, but since the stories from the books had been thus far largely rewritten – with only the titles remaining – there was no guarantee that returning to the source material was going to work. Similarly, even though The Bourne Ultimatum ended somewhat abruptly, making you wonder whether a further sequel would have been a fairly natural progression, it arguably closed the case on this particular character – where would they really go from there?
Nevertheless, huge Box Office numbers saw Damon and Greengrass attached to a fourth film for quite some time, with Dan Gilroy, the brother of series writer Tony Gilroy, commissioned to write the script. When Greengrass left, however, Damon went with him (arguably out of the same loyalty that Gibson showed when director Richard Donner left the Lethal Weapon franchise, despite series writer Shane Black’s potential new script), and the two Gilroys – Tony and Dan – had to come up with a new story: one which probably wouldn’t involve Bourne.
The end result is thankfully neither a reboot, nor a prequel, but more of a side-story spin-off which introduces us to a character who could potentially carry the baton from Bourne. Whether or not this will actually happen may depend on Box Office returns and fan response, but at least this appears to be the intention.
Taken as a new chapter in the Bourne saga, The Bourne Legacy is an ambitious project which works excellently in many respects, but also falters in some others. For starters, Tony Gilroy is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to his involvement in the project: whilst his hand in writing all three previous Bourne screenplays makes him to obvious choice to pen this one, his directorial style is arguably more languid than the series demands.
Clocking in at an unpleasantly bum-numbing 135 minutes – when, somewhat sensibly, none of the other Bourne entries even tried to break the two-hour mark – The Bourne Legacy really does take its time setting the stage for the eventual action that follows in the final few minutes. You might think that this is the effect of having a less shaky-cam-oriented director involved – along with Greengrass, the series lost regulars, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Christopher Rouse (who collaborated with Greengrass and Damon on the Bournes as well as the equally shaky-cam-happy Green Zone, the former also going on to lend his wavering hands to the aforementioned Safe House) – but you’d be wrong, or at least partly wrong.
You see, whilst the frantic filmwork is toned down massively, it’s toned down in all the wrong places. Greengrass (& Co.) may have shaken up the action to the absolute edge of tolerance, but they also kept the narrative rollicking along at a frenetic pace, something which Gilroy’s chosen editor (his brother John Gilroy – wow this is getting incestuous) and cinematographer don’t seem quite as intent on doing. Ironically, the one filming aspect that is retained across all four movies is the one thing that many fans would have probably preferred to be the element that was toned down: the shaky-cam action, which here is just as strong, and just as sporadically indecipherable, as ever.
Even the series regular composer John Powell’s absence is noted, his frantic, driving Bourne theme distinctly missing in James Newton Howards more generic new offering (indeed the only bit they keep is that damn closing track by Moby – Extreme Ways – which is quite painful to endure now, particularly if you happen to have just caught up on all three movies in anticipation of the fourth). Without Powell’s energy, the score proves reliable but never engaging, and certainly never heightens the tension – something which this film arguably needs even more than its predecessors.
During the prolonged setup – almost two hours of it – we get a seemingly endless barrage of clandestine ops-talk; the various shady characters plotting and counter-plotting as the events from The Bourne Ultimatum play out in the background, and clips from said film (unnecessarily) remind us of what happened. It’s a risky tactic – to dedicate quite so much of the runtime of a fourth entry in a series to plot exposition – and it doesn’t quite work. If you’ve forgotten all about the Bourne trilogy, then maybe the recap helps, but for fans of the series – as mentioned: those dedicated enough to revisit the movies prior to watching this one – there’s far too much needless exposition.
Obviously the director’s strategy – borrowed from his excellent slow-burning debut on the George Clooney thriller, Michael Clayton – was to build up an intricate and involving backstory. And he might have succeeded in his plans, but unfortunately he fails to fully integrate the two parallel stories: the devastating fallout from the Bourne debacle (hopefully not the name for the next movie, although Greengrass once joked about the next one being The Bourne Redundancy!) and the plight of the last surviving operative-on-the-run. Instead, what we get is a whole lot of stodgy this feels like old news Bourne background information – which we didn’t really need to know; we could have guessed most of it – and a fairly slight and insubstantial bit of character mapping for the new lead hero.
Which brings us to Jeremy Renner. On the basis of his gritty Hurt Locker performance alone, he deserved this gig, yet after his abortive attempt at becoming the replacement lead in the Mission: Impossible series (sorry, but Cruise is still – even at 50 – considerably more impressive in the action/stunts department) I had my doubts, particularly when he’s making yet another attempt to take over somebody else’s franchise. After all, Matt Damon is Bourne. Sticking the ‘Bourne’ name in the title, however logical it may seem in terms of the plot’s events, and however financially lucrative it is in terms of pulling in the same crowd, is still a bit of an insult without actually featuring Matt Damon in the role that he simply defined.
Thankfully Renner’s Outcome Operative Aaron Cross (a particularly poorly-chosen name, as we’re unlikely to ever get anything with ‘Cross’ in the title – like “The Cross Initiative” – because the popular James Patterson character, brought to life by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came the Spider, is getting his own reboot later this year, using the now-commonplace, ‘name-of-the-hero’ titling: Alex Cross) never really tries to be Bourne and Renner seems perfectly content to just play it his way. Whilst there is an undeniable feeling that Renner’s superspy is far more inquisitive than any of his brethren have been previously portrayed as (not just Damon’s Bourne, but also the other assassins played perfectly by the likes of Clive Owen, Edgar Ramirez and Karl Urban), Renner just about pulls this off, at least entertaining us with his now-trademark sarcasm even if it does strain his character’s credibility. It’s just a shame that Bourne’s name is mentioned far more often than Cross’s, to the point where I struggled to even remember the new lead character’s name come the end of the film.
In the action department he certainly kicks ass, although the story itself rarely allows us to see the full extent of his skills: indeed never even showing him going toe-to-toe against another super-spy – something which every single earlier chapter in the series was known for. We do get to see him punching wolves (following in the footsteps of The Grey’s Liam Neeson) and sniping down aerial drones (like Cruise in M:i-3) – and we get a nice mid-film sequence where he takes down an entire CIA hit-squad – but there’s very little else of significance on the run-up to the almost anticlimactic finale. Indeed the single best moment has already had endured numerous repeat plays after having been shown in the trailer, and the ensuing bike chase feels a little bit passé, especially when both Bond and Bourne have thoroughly covered this ground before (in Quantum of Solace and Bourne Ultimatum). You would think that the writer of a story which parallels many of the events in another story he wrote – Ultimatum – would have come up with some better ideas than just repeating the rooftop run / bike chase we’d seen before.
This is not Renner’s fault, however, and he does largely succeed in the role – even after something of a false start, with a dodgy, fake first-act beard which, alone, threatened to make him a laughing stock, and even if his main motivation appears to be little more than a drug-addict’s quest for pills – and he is also ably supported by numerous familiar faces from the series, as well as a few new ones. Joan Allen (Manhunter, Face/Off), David Strathairn (The Firm, Good Night and Good Luck) and Scott Glenn (The Hunt for Red October) reprise their respective CIA roles, however briefly, and Edward Norton’s Colonel Byer takes over duties as the new person in charge of cleaning up this mess. Despite his Hulk troubles, Norton’s always been good playing this kind of consummate professional, and he takes to the commanding role with aplomb. Rachel Weisz (Enemy At The Gates) makes for a competent female scientist / partner / potential love interest and Louis Ozawa Changchien (from Predators) barely gets enough time to shine as the deadly operative LARX-03, part of yet another clandestine programme that was believed to succeed Outcome because its equally-highly-trained operatives had had their empathetic tendencies chemically neutered.
Of course this is clearly just the start to another Bourne-related side-story and, in that respect, it fails to tie up anything at the end – in fact, if anything, it actually leaves things more open ended than they were at the end of Ultimatum! It’s an abrupt, dissatisfying end, the insult from which smacks you hard in the face after having endured 135 minutes of overly-plodding backstory just to get there. Again I make reference to the two concurrent plots – where the plight of Cross is reasonably satisfactorily resolved, the backstory involving the shady returning characters from the CIA is just left up in the air. Will they do another Bourne movie to finish things off? Will they do another Cross movie first, before bringing the two back together for one grand finale? Certainly the chances of one or the other are extremely high – the decision over whether or not to bring back Damon now will probably come down to just how popular this entry is – but it’s a shame because the knowledge of yet more to come only makes you feel a bit like you’ve wasted your time expecting the answers to come now.
The three previous Bourne films all wonderfully handled the notion of providing a satisfactory, everything-tied-up conclusion, with each successive instalment cleverly unwinding the knot in order to further develop the conspiracy. That’s the way you should do it. Don’t plan for sequels, Prometheus-style. They weren’t wrong when they wrote the tagline for The Bourne Legacy, but perhaps it should be amended to the admittedly oxymoronic There Was Never Just One Bourne Trilogy.
Regarded as a standalone spy-action-thriller – if that’s even possible to do given the fact that it is enshrouded in, and dependent upon, the franchise’s heritage – The Bourne Legacy is a solid, intelligent and frequently engaging addition to the sub-genre. But up against its benchmark-setting predecessors, it struggles to keep up the momentum, and fails to retain the same significance as the previous entries. Its disappointment comes from being merely a good chapter in what is a great series. Still, Renner’s Cross is a competent and worthy lead, and fans of the Bourne series will certainly be interested in the exploration of the legacy from the previous trilogy, and pleased by the fact that it will undoubtedly continue. Personally, I hope that – sooner rather than later – they bring Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne back to the series; a series which was defined by him, and which will always be overshadowed by Bourne in his absence.
3,162 word review written by Cas Harlow.
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