In 2002, The Bourne Identity re-energized the spy thriller by combining intelligent, three-dimensional characters with an independent movie style. The movie even improved on the source material by adding a moral ambiguity that was missing from Robert Ludlum’s original story. Paul Greengrass, who replaced Doug Liman in the directing chair for the next two movies – The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum – raised the bar even higher. But after the intensity of these films, both star Matt Damon and Greengrass wanted a break from the series.
Universal Studios, though, wanted a fourth picture. Producer Frank Marshall turned to Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays of the previous movies, and an ingenious solution was created. The Bourne universe was expanded and the focus of the new movie became an agent whose fate becomes entwined with Bourne’s actions. Gilroy was also assigned to direct the movie which, considering his two previous directing jobs were the Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton and the twisty comedic thriller Duplicity, was an excellent choice. The result is The Bourne Legacy, and it is a worthy successor to the previous three movies.
Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is one of a half-dozen agents in a black-ops program called Outcome, the spiritual stepchild of Bourne’s Treadstone. Under the overall control of former Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton), with oversight from Admiral Mark Turso (Stacey Keach), they have genetically altered the Outcome agents to make them physically stronger as well as increasing their IQs. Cross had gone off the grid for a couple of days and is being punished with a grueling solitary training exercise in the Alaskan wilderness.
At the same time, Jason Bourne is ripping the lid off Treadstone. (Footage from The Bourne Ultimatum is interspersed with the new movie early on.) CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) warns Turso that Outcome may be threatened because of Bourne’s actions. Byer assesses the threat and finds, on YouTube of all places, a link between Treadstone’s Dr. Hirsh (Albert Finney) and the chemist in charge of Outcome. If Treadstone is revealed, Outcome will soon be compromised. Byer decides to wipe away any trace of the program.
Cross makes his way through the wilderness to a cabin where he meets up with another Outcome agent who’s also in hack, in this case because he fell in love. When Cross beds down for the night, he finds several people have carved their names in the board above his head, including one Jason Bourne. The next morning, at Byer’s order, a drone attack destroys the cabin. Cross barely escapes, but he faces a worse threat. His supply of the drugs needed to maintain his strength and intelligence is running low. Cross had had his health monitored by Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) at a laboratory in Maryland. Cross figures she’s the one person who can help him. But Byer is determined that all traces of Outcome will be wiped away.
This is not exactly a sequel, nor is it a spinoff of a character from the previous movie. Instead it’s a hybrid creation, and it’s a testimony to Gilroy’s skill that it works. The plot is weaker than the previous movies, and you don’t have a fully defined bad guy who directly faces off with the hero, as, respectively, Chris Cooper, Karl Urban, and David Strathairn did in the previous movies. Gilroy makes up for this with style as well as the intelligence that always infuses his screenwriting projects. (He collaborated on the Legacy screenplay with his fraternal twin brother Dan, who has also written screenplays on his own and did the story for last year’s Real Steel).
It also helps having Renner as Cross. Renner shows the on-the-edge, dangerous quality that energized The Hurt Locker and The Town, making Cross even more threatening than Bourne. Rachel Weisz had done action/thrillers before, such as The Mummy, but she’s also shown her ability in cerebral thrillers like The Constant Gardener. The Bourne Legacy is somewhere in the middle of those two.
The weaker plot leaves Norton and Keach mostly acting as talking heads, but they do make the most out of what they have. I do hope there’ll be a sequel in which they come face to face with Cross. Both Joan Allen and David Strathairn have cameo appearances in Legacy, building on the Ultimatum story, so if Damon decides to step into the Bourne role again, there are options.
Bourne and Cross together? That would be thriller heaven.