As a big fan of the original Bourne trilogy, I had huge misgivings about The Bourne Legacy when it was announced. For starters, director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon wouldn’t be returning, which is a huge hurdle to get over for anyone even thinking of continuing the franchise. Still, some of those nagging little mindvoices were silenced when they released a dynamite trailer showing Jeremy Renner being a Bourne-like badass, Rachel Weisz doing medical things and Ed Norton taking the vacated role of “stressed greying guy in control room surrounded by screens”.
Let’s get this sorted. Jeremy Renner does not play Jason Bourne. He plays a similar black ops agent called Aaron Cross, who is hunted by his organisation after Bourne starts uncovering all sorts of dirty little secrets. With previously top secret initiatives like Treadstone and Operation Blackbriar hitting the headlines, the CIA go into panic mode and call in retired USAF Colonel Eric Byer (Ed Norton) who decides to eliminate their in the field agents like Cross before similar stories come out. One of the things that sets Cross apart from Bourne is the he’s part of a genetic modification program that means he’s dependent on physical and mental enhancement pills. After initially evading his executors, Cross meets Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the lone survivor of an horrific workplace shooting, who he enlists to help with his pill problem. Whilst The Bourne Legacy is technically both a sequel and a reboot, it is also a “sidequel” i.e. a sequel that takes place within the timeframe of its predecessor as Legacy runs in parallel with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. I would suggest that you rewatch Ultimatum to familiarise yourself with the events, but I’ll explain why I’m hesitant to do that later. Given his first proper action lead, Renner proves to be every bit as capable as I expected him to be. It’s a shame that the part isn’t up to his mad skillz, but he does well. Rachel Weisz also does sterling work as Dr. Marta, giving us a smart, capable anti-damsel who conversely conjures some genuine concern for her wellbeing during the aforementioned shooting scene. Ed Norton was also decent, giving us the closest thing the film has to a proper bad guy until the third act of the film, when a new challenger appears.
All the hallmarks of a Bourne film are here. We’ve got a badass agent on the run, people in control rooms arguing about how to track down said agent and cover their arses at the same time, plus various action scenes somewhat grounded in reality. In fact, if you watched it on mute, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Matt Damon was going to pop up any minute. The main failing of the film is that none of these elements mesh together into a single cohesive story. Rather than being a brave step to launch what presumably is to be a Cross trilogy, The Bourne Legacy is a shaky half-step, with one foot set firmly in the familiar and relying on the audience’s love of the Bourne series to get away with singing the same old song. Whilst I liked the office politics in the first three films, even Ed Norton couldn’t save them from boring me in this one. It’s nowhere near as smart as a) it thinks it is and b) I’ve come to expect from the Bourne series . The film takes a punishing 40 mins or so to start making any sense, leading to a feeling of “Well, if the film isn’t going to bother, why should I?”. The pacing is dreadful. I rewatched The Bourne Ultimatum afterwards and noticed the film moves like a freight train compared to Legacy. As I said, with all the familiar elements in place, you may think that all the Bourne films were this slow. They’re not.
So yeah, I wouldn’t recommend watching (or re-watching) The Bourne Ultimatum beforehand. Firstly, because Ultimatum is a much better film and it may colour your expectations for this one. Secondly, there’s a hell of a lot of familiar things, specifically the action sequences. Both the rooftop chase and the dirtbike shenanigans are recreated somewhat, breeding a real feeling of déjà vu. I concede this may be intentional as the film runs parallel to Bourne’s actions, so there may be some sense in Cross echoing them, but still. Also, without spoiling too much, Legacy kinda ruins Ultimatum’s ending. It’s like watching a Disney film where the prince and princess got married and assumedly lived happily ever after, only for the sequel to come out and for it to be revealed that they went through a bitter and drawn-out divorce. Plus, (and here’s the kicker) the action wasn’t even that good. It didn’t have the same frenetic energy or furious invention that the Damon films had. There are a couple of decent bits, but I expect more from the series that even managed to change 007’s tune. To put it stupidly, there aren’t as many awesome bits as there should have been.
A lot of Legacy doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t a huge fan of the whole “super-soldier pills” plotline as it seems a bit too out there for the series (although they’re apparently in the books). I liked the character of Aaron Cross (once the film stopped playing silly buggers and started actually telling a story) and I really think a trilogy starring him would be a fine thing. They just need to get Greengrass back or get director Tony Gilroy some extra help in the writing department. As the head writer for the Damon Bournes, I would have thought that Gilroy would have knocked it out of the park story-wise. I’ve read many reviews imploring you to switch off your brain and lower your expectations. I don’t buy those excuses any more. There is no reason why a film can’t have kick-ass action as well as a compelling and intelligent plot as the previous Damon films proved. As for lowering your expectations, well, I was promised a new Bourne film. We all were. That comes with a certain expectation. It’s like buying a BLT sandwich, but having everyone tell you to adjust your expectations about the bacon-ness of your just bought snack as it actually tastes like Egg & Cress. Well, I like Egg & Cress, but that’s not what I was sold. It says BLT on the packaging, so that’s what I fucking expect. Same with this film. I will say this: there is potential for a decent new direction for the franchise here. I like Cross, Dr. Marta and Eric Byer. I hope the film makes enough money so they can have another crack of the whip. As it stands though, The Bourne Legacy is pretty poor and doesn’t do enough to earn its Moby-scored end credits.