With The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) came a satisfying conclusion to the popular spy franchise as its protagonist finally came to terms with who he was and how he came to be a government-trained assassin. Never one to let a lucrative franchise die, Universal Pictures soon started to develop yet another installment. However, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass – Ultimatum’s star and director respectively – felt that there was no more story to tell and bowed out, leaving the studio with quite a dilemma. So, they went back to the architect of the series, screenwriter Tony Gilroy. He had written the first draft for Ultimatum before two other writers were hired while he tried his hand at directing. He had made waves in the press about not being particularly thrilled with the direction the third film had taken and so I’m sure he saw The Bourne Legacy (2012) as a chance to make this franchise his own and no doubt itching to bounce back after the lackluster box office of his last film Duplicity (2009).
The problem Gilroy faced was getting people interested in a film no longer starring the series’ beloved lead actor. However, he wisely cast a completely different actor with Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) who, thankfully, doesn’t play a rehash of Jason Bourne. Gilroy also wisely acknowledges what came before by having the ending of Ultimatum overlap with Legacy. In doing so, this installment isn’t a remake but rather a reboot/sequel hybrid that exists in the same world created in the first three films.
After Jason Bourne exposed the United States government’s top secret operations, Blackbriar and Treadstone, the CIA bigwigs enlist retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to cover their tracks. This involves eliminating all operatives in other clandestine undertakings, chief among them Operation Outcome. It is one of the Department of Defense’s black ops programs that provides agents with green pills that enhance their physical skills and blue pills that enhance their mental capabilities. One by one, these agents are killed except for Aaron Cross (Renner), who’s been on a training exercise in the remote wilderness of Alaska.
The CIA also tries to kill the scientists that researched the pills by brainwashing one of them (Zeljko Ivanek) to shoot his co-workers, save Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who narrowly survives. This is a chilling scene as Gilroy ratchets up the tension with the killer coldly gunning scientists down like some kind of mild-mannered (yet frighteningly lethal) Manchurian Candidate. Naturally, Byer and his crew create a cover story for the media of just another crazed rampage by a lone gunman. As it turns out, Marta originally administered Aaron’s meds and so he seeks her out to get more pills and get some answers, while Byer tries to kill them. Once they are on the run, Gilroy cranks up the paranoia factor as simple tasks like boarding a plane are a nerve-wracking experience as any fellow passenger could be an incognito government operative sent to kill them.
Aaron Cross is a much chattier character than the taciturn Bourne and, unlike him, Aaron knows exactly who he is. Once a good soldier, he now questions what he’s doing and why he needs to be dependent on these pills. This latter dilemma manifests itself more and more as the film goes on with Aaron conveying, at times, the desperation of a junkie looking for his next fix. With The Bourne Legacy, Renner completes a trifecta of high-profile action films that include Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) and The Avengers (2012). The supporting roles he had in those two films were just warm-ups for Legacy where he finally gets to headline his own big, Hollywood blockbuster and pulls it off.
Rachel Weisz’s Marta is not the damsel in distress she initially appears to be as the scientist quickly acclimates to her predicament – being on the run with Aaron – and even helps him take out the occasional bad guy. Not surprisingly, Aaron and Marta’s relationship is initially an abrasive one as he demands more pills and answers from her, but she soon realizes that without his help she will most certainly wind up dead before the day is out. It is an uneasy alliance that you would expect from two people thrown together in a desperate situation but over the course of the film they learn to trust each other. Weisz plays a convincing scientist, adept at spouting the technical jargon that comes with the role, but she also has some touching scenes with Renner as his character becomes as dependent on her as she is on him. The Bourne Legacy is a nice change of pace for the actress who hasn’t been in an action-oriented franchise since The Mummy films.
Interestingly, the idea of drug-induced government operatives eerily echoes, albeit on a much larger scale, a storyline in the fourth season of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy falls in love with a college student by the name of Riley who is actually a pharmaceutically-enhanced government agent, and much like in the Bourne films, this top secret operation is eventually exposed and then covered up by the government. Once Riley realizes the true nature of the operation, he goes rogue and even begins to feel the detrimental effects of the drugs he was on – his pain receptors shut down and he must seek treatment. Sound familiar? Now, genetically enhanced government operatives are nothing new. Comic book superhero Captain America is also enhanced through genetic engineering but the similarities between The Bourne Legacy and this storyline from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are quite striking.
For those not crazy about Paul Greengrass’ frenetic, often disorienting hand-held camera action sequences in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum, will be happy to know that Legacy is, by and large, devoid of them. Gilroy shows a good sense of geography and skill at choreography during these scenes, in particular, a dynamic and tense battle in Marta’s home between her and Aaron and a team of assassins sent to kill them. With this sequence – and others – Gilroy creates a real sense of danger and scary intensity as one feels that Aaron and Marta’s lives are really at risk.
The Bourne Legacy could be seen as an opportunistic cashgrab by a studio afraid to let a lucrative franchise lie dormant but I don’t think Tony Gilroy sees it this way. In addition to delivering a rousing spy thriller, he raises some interesting questions about the culpability of pharmaceutical companies that research and create performance enhancing drugs and this is touched on in an early conversation between Aaron and Marta where he chastises her for claiming ignorance over the true purpose of the drugs she helped create, pointing out that they control him. Gilroy’s skill at writing smart dialogue comes into play during this scene and throughout the entire film as he creates an intelligent and exciting thriller that opens up the world he first helped create in The Bourne Identity (2002). That being said, he doesn’t deviate from the template established in the first film as our heroes are tracked with state-of-the-art surveillance technology by government officials barking orders in a control room all the while the protagonists traverse the globe looking for answers and evading the bad guys. While, Legacy is not as good as the first three films – Matt Damon was just too good at eliciting our sympathies and, at the time, those films were a fresh alternative to the Bond franchise – it is very well done and a promising start for a new series of films with a new protagonist to root for.