The Bourne series only really found itself in the second installment, when Paul Greengrass took over, to the extent that I struggle to engage with The Bourne Identity because it lacks the intelligence and immersive style that typified Supremacy and Ultimatum.
Identity is an entertaining but a somewhat disposable and largely empty affair. The sequels introduced a moral ambiguity and powerful post-9/11 commentary that elevated them beyond your average action movie and into thrilling, intelligent entertainment for grown ups. These were films about the ugly necessity of covert operations and man’s struggle to reconcile his past mistakes.
The Bourne franchise losing Greengrass lead to them losing star Matt Damon, proving such a money-making property, Universal were never going to let this one lie. In a relatively refreshing move, they opted to give the franchise a soft-reboot and replace the lead character but hold onto the previous continuity; this allows them the chance to branch out in their own direction whilst managing to keep the opportunity open for Damon to return.
I wish I could say The Bourne Legacy was strong enough to replace the holes left by Greengrass and Damon, but it’s not. It’s almost there, but not quite. Jeremy Renner as the new lead is one of the elements that works well. He has a completely different presence to his predecessor, which helps keep things relatively fresh. Just looking at Renner’s slightly craggy exterior, he looks like a man who has willingly dived face-first into a few fists, he also looks like a fighter and someone who would quite willingly throw himself into the fray. This sets him apart. His energy during the fight sequences is slightly more ferocious, even if the fights themselves are fairly rote when compared to the ingenuity displayed during the Greengrass movies.
The Bourne Legacy’s story is more problematic; the parts that intersect with the events in Ultimatum are intriguing, expanding the movie world in interesting ways, showing that the actions of Jason Bourne have wider implications than we ever expected. I found these to be among the most compelling in the film and Tony Gilroy wrote the hell out of them. These scenes give Ed Norton’s character a lot to work with, giving him one of the most compelling characters in the series, a villain who believes firmly that what he is doing is not only necessary but right. These scenes carry some of that ambiguity that made the Greengrass films so enthralling. The problem is that Renner’s Aaron Cross is given very little to do, the plot largely involves Cross and Rachel Weisz’s Dr. Shearing (a largely thankless role) running from location to location and occasionally getting into scrapes.
Worse yet, the objective that drives Cross struggles to connect. Whereas Jason Bourne was driven by a mystery, a need to know the truth about his own past and find some measure of atonement, Aaron Cross doesn’t want to be stupid. Prior to entering the programme that transforms ordinary recruits into super-soldiers, Cross was considered to have a sub-normal IQ, the use of chemical stimulants enhance his intelligence and other attributes but they only last for a while before the effects start to wear off; now a fugitive from the government, he has no access to these drugs and this is the essence of Aaron Cross’ character arc. It’s not high drama and it offers no room for political subtext, unlike Bourne, which leaves the brunt of the plotting to be a little hard to take. We have moved from post-9/11 paranoid thriller to science fiction melodrama.
Aside from some saggy pacing in the final third, Gilroy keeps the film chugging along, despite being lighter fare than usual. Along with Renner’s strong lead, Gilroy helps set the stage for further, hopefully better adventures in the Bourne universe. The Bourne Legacy is not quite worthy of its namesake, it’s exclusively set-up and that could prove aggravating for audiences who like their films to come with some form of closure, but it’s a start.