For late summer moviegoers looking for literally nothing more than a film that looks and moves almost mechanically in every way that a spy thriller should operate, or for those simply looking to beat the heat, there are honestly far worse options out there than The Bourne Legacy, but the whole film feels so mechanical and devoid of personality in every way that it almost doesn’t feel created by human hands. While the idea of rebooting the Jason Bourne franchise in a different direction by showcasing stories taking place within the same fictional universe is admirable, the script and plotting don’t feel like the work of human hands. It feels like the result of a multiple choice exam filtered through a computer and these were the answers that were regurgitated back. There are certainly things to like about the film, mainly in the performances and some slow burn pacing that works in its favour, but those looking for anything approaching originality should probably lower their expectations.
Set during the same timeline as the events that begin the final Matt Damon entry in the franchise, a government agent (Edward Norton) that had been running a program even more secret than the Jason Bourne spawning Treadstone has decided that the forthcoming media circus surrounding upcoming government hearings warrants him abandoning his Outlook program by “burning it to the ground” and making sure everyone involved is killed. One of his formerly nine super soldiers Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) escapes from being nearly blown to bits in Alaska, leading the soldier on a journey for answers while aided by a similarly targeted biochemist (Rachel Weisz) who can get him the specialized drugs he needs to keep functioning.
That’s the easiest way to explain the plot without really spoiling too much since the film has a lot of new ground to cover what with the spectre of Jason Bourne thrust into the periphery here in favour of a whole new program with a new set of rules. It doesn’t stop call backs to the first film, of which there are many in the first 45 minutes and again briefly in the final 10, but it’s very clear that big screen series creator Tony Gilroy (directing his first entry in the franchise based on the bestsellers of Robert Ludlum) wants to go in a new direction here. That sort of singularity should normally be a good sign, but for reasons that will come up shortly, it shows that on something of this size he needs someone that can keep him in check.
The film really rises and falls on Jeremy Renner, and he’s easily the biggest reason to see the film. His Aaron Cross has a far more vulnerable edge than Jason Bourne had to him, and Renner plays the character as someone who can be seen as completely affable if one doesn’t piss him off. When confronted with the first person he’s seen in months following a training exercise, he’s not a distant sort of soldier, but one that tries to engage in small talk and pleasantries. He has the capacity for cunning, but he’s not a smooth operator. The character and how Renner portrays him is indeed quite interesting, but the film built around it suffers greatly.
The reason the previous and supposedly final Bourne film was able to get away with a script that was chock full of expositional dialogue was because there were two films prior to it that established the character and that fans of the franchise knew exactly what the stakes were. Here, Gilroy is playing a bit of dirty pool with the audience since he’s introducing a whole new set of characters, but he can’t get rid of the exposition dump. There’s hardly a single line of dialogue in the film where two people actually say anything interesting to one another. Save for the brief scene of small talk mentioned earlier, there isn’t a single sound bite of this film that’s not designed to move the film’s hopelessly lumbering plot along. There’s nothing here to make us wonder who or what exactly Renner or Norton’s characters do. They’re reduced quite literally to a series of arbitrary attributes designed to create forward momentum. They aren’t people. They’re plot points. And poor Rachel Weisz, who’s still pretty darn good considering what she’s given, has the most unenviable task of all by spouting literally all the pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo that’s designed to explain everything. Only it doesn’t because Gilroy in all his wisdom leaves just enough maddeningly dangling plot points to ensure that there has to be another movie since he doesn’t allow a single thing to add up or come to any conclusion here.
As for the action that brings many fans to the franchise, there’s precious little. The film shows remarkable restraint at first, taking a good 45 minutes before having anything that can even remotely defined as an action sequence, but shortly after that is when it becomes wholly apparent that Gilroy really thinks that action means people pacing worriedly in a room while shouting at each other to get results all set to an upbeat James Newton Howard score. There are some fights, some chases, a shoot-out, and a cat and mouse sequence in a drug factory, but there’s a real sameness and staleness to what’s up on screen. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before, and it speaks to Gilroy’s uncomfortable and unsteady hand when it comes to action spectacle. Even the film’s big finale (a lengthy chase through the city of Manila) does nothing to raise the stakes or raise the already high bar set by the franchise. It doesn’t help that the sequence suffers from Gilroy trying to ape the handheld style of previous helmer Paul Greengrass, but with little of his technical know how. The editing is sloppy and the choice of camera angles in the action sequences is often ponderous.
The Bourne Legacy achieves only a very basic set of goals insomuch as it puts forth the appearance of a streamlined spy thriller in vaguely the same vein as its predecessors. But that’s really all it accomplishes. When the film ends incredibly abruptly at the two hour and ten minute mark, the audience is no closer to understanding anything than when they went in but they will probably vaguely feel like they saw something with some meaning. In reality, with this film the Jason Bourne franchise becomes the spy movie equivalent of a different Jason themed franchise, and while Bourne isn’t here for this one, the familiar strains of Moby at the end echo the similar musical cues of a certain unstoppable killing machine returning to Camp Crystal Lake (and remember, Jason Voorhees wasn’t the killer in every entry of his franchise, either). This is big budget sameness that thinks it has a higher pedigree than a slasher franchise, but really, they aren’t all that different. Actually, The Friday the 13th series has one up on The Bourne Legacy. None of those films ever felt like a two plus hour prologue for a film that has yet to be delivered.