The Bourne Legacy begins an interesting chapter in Universal Pictures’ lucrative action franchise as a new secret agent faces down the CIA and the Department of Defense in his attempt to survive the American espionage machine.
Set during the events of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, just as the public becomes aware of Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon), director Tony Gilroy's follow-up centers on the government's decision to dismantle its black-ops programs, including Outcome, a DoD initiative designed to create perfect covert operatives through behavioral modification and genetic tampering.
Enter Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an Outcome agent training in Alaska who’s caught literally between a rock and a hard place when the burn order comes in. The only agent to survive the purge, Cross is forced to go on the lam without the Outcome-issued medication he on which he depends. Recruiting the sole remaining Outcome scientist, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the two hoof it across the globe in an attempt to weather Cross’ dangerous pill withdrawal and escape the attention of the morally ambiguous Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton), who’s coordinating the effort to kill the agent and bury all evidence of the super-spy programs.
Weisz is enjoyable as the shell-shocked Shearing, believably scrambling for the means to survive while slowly warming up to Cross and her new fugitive status. Unfortunately, the meatiest part of her character, a willingness to ignore the big picture of what Outcome was doing so she can keep her conscience clear and her paychecks coming, is also the least explored, a story flaw that otherwise mars her well-realized figure. The returning cast (including Joan Allen, Albert Finney and Scott Glen) is as entertaining as they were in the previous three films, and Norton is a fantastic addition to the Bourne universe. Norton does the heaviest lifting of the film, with his performance as Colonel Byer encapsulating the moral and philosophical struggles at the center of the quadrilogy: Byer is simultaneously a patriot willing to play traitor, a Defense man at odds with the department, and an intelligence head at the center of a web whose strands not even he fully understands.
If the first three Bourne movies were about Bourne not knowing the full picture of his past or the agency’s reach, the theme of Legacy is that the people in charge are just as clueless. Byer isn’t just uncovering Cross’ whereabouts, he’s also discovering the complete communications breakdown between departments and agencies. Although the earlier trilogy pitted the agent against the espionage machine, the latest chapter is about what happens to the cogs when everything collapses, and Norton does a phenomenal job as the man whose entire life is devoted to hiding just how broken that machine is.
But if Norton is the acting highlight of Legacy, Renner is a close second, playing Cross as a man shunned and hunted by the only organization he’s ever wanted to belong to. Renner does a great job differentiating his Cross from Damon’s Bourne, creating a strangely down-to-earth covert agent who’s just as happy to smile his way out of danger as he is to throw a punch. Channeling a healthy dose of humor, Renner is equally charming and physically intimidating, and his tenderness toward Weisz makes your heart go out to the amiable super-spy, no matter how many necks he snaps.
Like the first three films, Legacy doesn’t flinch away from onscreen violence, snapping bones and shooting agents at point-blank range so realistically it can be difficult to watch. One of the best scenes of the movie is easily the most disturbing, a lone gunman going on a shooting spree through a lab of hapless scientists, which in the light of the Aurora killings will undoubtedly be debated and discussed at length.
But Legacy also brings to it a glittery, slick big-budget action feel different from the first movies as it engages in high-speed motorcycle chases and large-scale explosions. Sadly, the action can occasionally lean toward slapstick, as some of the more gravity-defying stunts feel like Looney Tunes jokes and not the fodder of a serious spy thriller (case in point: Renner’s wolf-wrasslin’ in the first 10 minutes). Still, even with the occasional eye-roll inducement, the action is well paced and easily the best part of the film.
Although visually stunning, Legacy is beset by two significant problems, the first being its excruciatingly long two-hour runtime. That might have worked if the extra 30 minutes were devoted to more action or character development, but instead it’s padded with dull scenes of Byer and his Washington cohorts looking things up on computers or talking about looking things up on computers (often while standing around, you guessed it, more computers). The first time we see the inner workings of Byer’s burn team, it’s fascinating; by the seventh time it’s a snore, and not even Norton can stop the Washington scenes from dragging down the second act.
But Legacy’s biggest problem is it’s simply not as good as the first three Bourne films. One of the hooks of the original trilogy was that, like Jason Bourne himself, the audience didn’t know the full story. With Legacy, there’s simply nothing left to learn about the world -- we know everything, and what mystery might remain about the DoD and Outcome is painstakingly explained in bursts of exposition. Even the fun science fiction touches that the new genetic tampering plot throws in remain just that, touches lacking anything more substantial. Legacy might as well be an original story in a brand-new film universe, because its straightforward nature doesn’t fit the Bourne oeuvre, and it suffers mightily (and, I acknowledge, somewhat unjustly) from the inevitable comparison.
Although it would fare much better as its own non-Bourne movie, Legacy provides enough high-speed thrills and genuinely interesting characters to make up for an otherwise lackluster story, and has enough intriguing dangling threads to keep the audience hoping for more – albeit shorter -- Cross and Shearing stories.
The Bourne Legacy opens today nationwide.