A Belated Analysis
I'll admit to having been been dismissive of this addition to the Bourne series when it appeared in cinemas last year. For one thing, Paul Greengrass, director of Bourne's Supremacy and Ultimatum, had handed over control of the franchise, and perhaps more dramatically, Matt Damon, Jason Bourne himself, would not be returning. As such, given the indifferent reviews it received upon release - 56% on Rotten Tomatoes - I could find no particular reason to go and see The Bourne Legacy when it was first released.
Long plane rides are good in this regard: they give you the chance to watch films you missed in the cinema and wouldn't otherwise bother to buy on DVD or BluRay. Also, watching a tiny picture in the back of someone else's headrest and listening to it with a cheap pair of headphones goes some way to lowering your expectations as a viewer. In this, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The Bourne Legacy and what it had to offer.
In place of the eponymous Bourne, we now have Aaron Cross, played breakout star Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). Ever since The Hurt Locker, Renner has been Hollywood's go-to guy for you intense, traumatized, but otherwise generally likeable protagonist, and the role of Cross plays to his strength in this regard. A member of Operation Outcome, successor to the programme that created Bourne, Cross is a man who has given himself over mind and body to the defense of his country.
Much of The Bourne Legacy runs parallel to Ultimatum: we - spoilers - witness the assassination of crusading journalist Simon Ross, played by Paddy Considine, for a second time, shortly before the existence of top-secret agencies Blackbriar and Treadstone hits the press. These events were set in motion by Jason Bourne, who haunts the periphery of the film as a lingering ghost: the agency was just a step behind him in Moscow; his name appears engraved into the wood of a bunk bed Cross sleeps in during his flight.
Actors from the previous films - Joan Allen, David Straitharn, and Albert Finney - make their appearances as CIA Deputy Director Landy, Blackbriar overseer Vosen, and Treadstone lead scientist Dr. Hirsch respectively, though these amount to little more than cameos. The ever-reliable Edward Norton takes up duties as lead antagonist Eric Byer, a retired US Air Force colonel brought in to manage damage control. This film is all about Bourne and the consequences of his actions, the most intriguing element of the film but ultimately its greatest weakness.
When Bourne’s antics lead to the public learning of the existence of the beyond-secret program that created him, Byer begins violently severing ties. Agents in the field, dosed with designer drugs to increase intelligence, are liquidated with casual efficiency. This is the spy, the soldier, as test subject: with Bourne himself being essentially a synthetic super soldier created by Hirsch. While Bourne had to lose his cover identity in order to rediscover his fundamental humanity, Cross is dependent on these drugs for his survival – more than expediency or simple addiction, without them, the film suggests he is simply not good enough.
Cross escapes an ambush by predator drone in the Alaskan mountains and heads off to civilization in search of the meds he needs to function – to mangle a metaphor, heading into the lion’s den in search of honey. This is were the film falls flat: whereas the previous films asked questions about duty and self, The Bourne Legacy is content to remain a chase movie. Cross saves a Treadstone scientist, played by Rachel Weisz, from assassination, and it’s clear that she is destined to become his Frankie Potente. However, while Bourne was bound to Franka Potente’s Marie in a journey of brutal self-discovery, Cross lacks the same depth – though he and Weisz have surprising chemistry, theirs is less of a relationship than a codependency.
From the end of the second act on, The Bourne Legacy has nowhere to go. Cross has spent most of the movie on the run, but, unlike his predecessor, he has no direct connection with those out to kill him. You could argue that’s the job of later films – after all in how many franchises does the first film serve mainly to set up the characters and world in-universe; the same could be said of introducing a new protagonist.
Even so, with a set of antagonists already in place from Jason Bourne’s prior antics, it’s disappointing that Cross never truly interacts with them. Even the super assassin sent after Cross in the film’s final straight – “Treadstone without the inconsistencies” – proves little more than persistent, and the whole affair just sort of peters out with little by the way of a dramatic climax. The Bourne Legacy picks up where the Damon-Greengrass series left off, but it fails to capitalize on them in any meaningful way.
The most interesting concept the film addresses – that of negotiable morality – is never explored in any meaningful way. A flashback between Byers and a slow-witted pre-medicated Cross – again, their only interaction in the film – sees Norton tell Renner that, “We are the Sin Eaters. It means that we take the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it down deep inside of us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary. You understand?"
I think an analysis of the Bourne quadrilogy, as it currently stands could provide some fascinating insights into the American psyche post-9/11, and, indeed, post-post-9/11, as I would argue is now becoming the prevailing paradigm. If we can find a way to live without The Patriot Act, maybe we will move past Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross, and all their kind, though in the foreseeable future that seems a distinctly unlikely proposition.
Verdict: Better than expected. Bourne Legacy shows that the franchise still has the mythos in place to carry on regardless of its losses, though Cross himself is not a particularly intriguing replacement. If they're able to reconnect their protagonist to the world of intrigue that forms the bedrock of the spy thriller - and give him something more worthwhile to do than simply run-, there's no reason The Bourne Legacy won't prove the first stepping stone on the path to a future for the series without the eponymous former amnesiac.