Saddled with the unenviable task of having to continue the successful Bourne franchise sans star Matt Damon, Tony Gilroy – screenwriter of the three previous films – slides into the director’s chair intent on linking the established Bourne universe with the fourth installment. This is a bold strategy and Gilroy, who has proven in his prior two films as auteur, Michael Clayton and Duplicity, that he has no sympathy for those who can’t follow his dense, twisty plotting, spends roughly 45 minutes of The Bourne Legacy simply setting the table by dizzily cross-cutting between characters and locales and weaving in all kinds of bureaucratic terminology like “crisis suite.” (Is that where Obama waited out Operation Neptune Spear? In a “crisis suite”?)
Although Jason Bourne is technically never seen, his photo is occasionally glimpsed in news reports and his presence looms over everything. It is he, in fact, who has exposed the ominously named black ops programs, Blackbriar and Treadstone, of the original trilogy and with heat coming down on the CIA, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), in charge of the just as illicit Operation Outcome – which forces selected citizens to pop pills to turn them into fightin’ machines – senses the heat around the corner and decides to shut it down by eliminating everyone involved (you know, a little like Order 66).
This would include Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a war vet, who talks bluntly and thinks quickly. He is in the wilds of Alaska for a training exercise and manages to escape a drone attack ordered by Byer via, alternately, fortuitous and then wily means. Alas, the attack also wipes out the precious supply of blue pills Cross so desperately needs to maintain mental dexterity. Without them, he’s a goner, and so he determines to track down the kindly doctor Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who has treated him and the others like him, unwittingly (a need to know basis, I believe it’s called), though she suspects something is amiss when a colleague goes rogue and shoots up her lab in a scene that is brilliantly staged, though (obviously unintentionally) eerily close to recent real life.
That scene coupled with Cross’s drone escape are the highlights of the obligatory action sequences. Less successful is the gigantic motorbike setpiece to close out the proceedings. It is filmed with the Greengrass-esque hyper-editing style of Supremacy and Ultimatum but is choppy and blurry and confused, such as in the moment when the motorbikes go sliding down a stair railing but we don’t actually SEE this happen. Could Gilroy not pull off the stunt or did John Gilroy, Tony’s brother, the film’s editor, not know how to piece it together? Yet, in spite of that, the sequence’s biggest issue seems to lie in its very existence. I may be off base but it emanates a distinct smell of studio interference – as in someone said to Gilroy, “this movie needs a gigantic setpiece at the end. Add it.” One could argue that Gilroy has, in fact, set out to craft a character study built around the structure of an action movie. The people and their problems seem of most interest to him and it’s why the final setpiece feels so perfunctory.
The only trouble is the problems of the people just don’t amount too much. Cross, ably played by Renner, is certainly a different protagonist than Bourne and, in the end, that turns out to be the film’s fatal flaw. Bourne, for all his kung-fu and car chases, was an existentialist, attempting not only to determine who he really was but to seek out absolution for the sins he had been programmed by the government to commit. Cross is a more straight-forward bird. He needs his “chems.” (This movie sets a record for number of mention of “chems”.) He loses his “chems.” He will get his “chems” by any means necessary. That is the story’s driving plot point. He is, in essence, an addict and the film’s crucial Reveal goes to show that he is an addict who needs and wants to stay the way he is.
Jason Bourne was desperate to reclaim himself. Aaron Cross is desperate to be anyone but who he is. The Bourne Legacy leaves the oddest aftertaste. It not make more for an entertaining sequel, but I really think Cross needs analysis.