This may cause many of you to tune out, and that's fine - I'm not the biggest fan of the Bourne movies. This has nothing to do with their quality - they're well-made, well-acted movies. My ambivalence comes from an entirely personal place. The Bourne movies, especially the last two, have a strange disconnect for me. I think Paul Greengrass is an extraordinary director - UNITED 93 is straight up a masterpiece - but how he mixes together the post-9/11 ambiguity and moral quandaries of the United States government with action and makes it into a thrill ride never sat quite right with me. Perhaps it's in the execution, but it's as if Greengrass is sugarcoating a very bitter pill. American audiences may be enjoying the ride, but it comes saddled with some very serious themes and issues.
And frankly, most audiences aren't picking up on it. They may consider the machinations of government agents to wipe all trace of our more nefarious deeds as simple fiction, but history has proven them wrong. There's a verisimilitude to the Bourne movies - we may never know how close to reality these movies are in its portrayal of various aspects of our government, but it certainly feels accurate. This is just an aesthetic choice for me, but this mix of real-world politics with popcorn action never quite gels. Movies like the recent TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY are amazing in its sense of reality, and the Bond movies have never come close to the real world, and how the Bourne movies mix those two aspects is a bit disorientating. It's a tonal swing that's never quite worked for me. I think THE BOURNE IDENTITY is the best of these movies because it manages to balance the two the most successfully. And, no offense to Paul Greengrass, but it's just shot better. I still can't embrace that camerawork that makes every action scene incoherent - it's done better in ULTIMATUM, but in SUPREMACY, it's seizure-inducing.
Again, that's a personal taste. Some people love the messages mixed with the mayhem, and if you enjoy these movies, THE BOURNE LEGACY brings all those pleasures back with a new hero, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). Unlike Bourne, searching for his identity, Cross knows exactly who and what he is. He hasn't quite put his ghosts behind him, but he's put them in a place where they don't affect the mission. As the movie opens, he's on an exercise in Alaska, fighting off wolves and trying to survive the frozen terrain. It's a shame Liam Neeson and his crew didn't meet up with Cross when their plane crash-landed in THE GREY.
When the events in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM go down, Cross is away from the action, so he doesn't have any knowledge of everything that's happening. But because of Bourne's actions, Admiral Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) is forced to bring in Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to help clean up the mess. Byer decides there's only one way to do that - shut down all the programs, everywhere, and walk away, including Outcome, the program Cross is in. What that means for the agents in the field, or course, is death.
Unfortunately for Cross, not only is the government trying to kill him, but he's also hooked on "chems" - drugs that enhance his physical and mental abilities, and when he doesn't have access to them, he'll break down. Cross's only hope is to get to Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who helped design the drugs. But shutting down Outcome means shutting her down as well, permanently, so Cross has to race against time to save her life and his own.
Tony Gilroy knows this world better than probably anyone (except the late Robert Ludlum, but the movies have strayed fairly far from the source at this point) and while Greengrass isn't behind the camera in this movie, Gilroy puts us back into this world with no problems. Further, he doesn't subscribe to Greengrass's mode of shooting action - the camerawork is more similar to the first movie than to the other two, with sequences staged for coherency rather than intensity. The way Gilroy intercuts Cross's journey with Byer's search for him is terrific as well. I particularly liked how Byer and his team manage to track down Cross in a matter of hours just from surveillance cameras across the planet. The writing is tight, full of technical jargon but it's never difficult to understand the stakes and what everyone's role is. Fair warning: there is a very violent (for PG-13) sequence when a sleeper agent becomes activated and murders quite a few people in a killing spree at a medical lab. Considering recent events, it may be difficult for some people to stomach.
Jeremy Renner does good work here, especially as his needs for his "chems" become more desperate, as he tracks down Rachel Weisz's character for a more permanent solution to his withdrawal. Norton plays the villain but doesn't play him like one - he's very much a patriot and knows what needs to get done, so you even find yourself rooting for him a little (if only a little). Weisz basically plays the smart scientist-in-distress template here, and she's done amazing work in other movies, but she's not really asked to carry the weight of this summer action movie, and isn’t very memorable.
The problem with THE BOURNE LEGACY is that this is obviously a new start for this franchise, and as such the movie doesn't really have an ending. I'm getting more than a little irritated with how many of these franchise movies aren't interested in having a satisfying resolution as they are in setting up the stakes for the next one. Even THE AVENGERS (which we all know will have a sequel) had a satisfying ending, and if they never made another one that movie would still be fine on its own. THE BOURNE LEGACY can't claim that - not on the front end, where seeing the other Bourne movies is an absolute requirement, and not on the back, where we know this story will continue with only a few of the issues resolved in any way. It's very much a stopgap movie, and while Cross is an interesting character, he can't support the weight of this franchise. Not yet, anyway.
This all leads up to the return of Jason Bourne in some fashion, of course, and while one hopes Renner and Matt Damon will face off in a later movie, THE BOURNE LEGACY isn't it. It's just setting up plot turns and possibilities for future installments. Fans of this franchise, of course, will come away satisfied, I think, but for people like me who aren't that invested in these movies, THE BOURNE LEGACY feels like more of the same.