With The Bourne Legacy, director Tony Gilroy transfers the lead from Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) to Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). The result: the more things change, the more they stay the same. With a decade’s difference between The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Legacy (2012), the latest chapter remains steeped in the world where Jason Bourne is in the process of exposing those behind the covert operations of Treadstone and Blackbriar. Bourne’s actions become far more reaching than anticipated when Admiral Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) and Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) are brought in to assess the situation and cover the deepest of tracks, the black ops program called Operation Outcome. Bourne’s presence is felt but never seen in the film, a whisper here, a name chiseled in stone there, a file lying on the desk, a random news article with an artist’s sketch on the television in the corner. The story shifts focus to Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross known as Outcome operative number 5 as Byer and Trusco begin to terminate the operation from within. With only an Outcome scientist named Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) on his side, Cross must fight to survive as other operatives fall one by one. Survival is his new mission.
Jeremy Renner makes the shift in leading man an easy transition. His Aaron Cross is a more rugged, a more physical presence than Damon’s more cerebral, but no less action oriented, Bourne. He brings various strong character influences of cinematic heroes such as Indiana Jones and James Bond to the role and to the series, to the film’s benefit. Stacked next to Bourne, for Cross, it’s more about what will he become than who he is, or was. Cross is focused, driven by his instinct for survival. Conspiracies, cover ups and revenge are not on his agenda. At least, not in this chapter. Cross is a beast, a lone wolf. But, behind the ferocity, is a humanity seeping through the rough exterior. The connection that blossoms with Weisz, Dr. Shearing allows Renner to show a softer side, not squishy soft, but soft enough to allow the character to breath emotionally. This allows for the film’s long stretches between action sequences to remain vital, engaging and impactful. By the end of the film, there’s little remorse in the loss of Jason Bourne shepherding the franchise. Long live Aaron Cross.
Rachael Weisz returns to role of action star she once championed in the Mummy franchise. In The Bourne Legacy, she’s a scientist recruited by Cross to free him of the chemical dependencies he has been subjected to in the Outcome program. Once the gauntlet is dropped (a fellow scientist is ordered go ‘postal’ in order to remove anyone on staff who knows too much), she only barely escapes the termination of her Outcome lab. She is shaken, but remains in control when she is confronted by assassins posing as a psychiatric evaluation team. She will not be bullied. Weisz gives the character a balance of fear, intelligence and strength. She is no where near a warrior, but she’s certainly not the pushover either. Much like Cross, but in entirely different ways, she too is a survivor.
Weisz and Renner also share a warm chemistry as well. While, not nearly as steamy or intense as the film makers wanted, their connection is natural and believable – authentic. Cross’ impulse to protect Shearing is never forced, it is allowed to mature and grow during their fight to survive. At first, she is just a means for his escape, as is Cross to Shearing. But there’s a hint, a twinkle in there, just enough to allow the story to build a relationship between the two, even if it feels a bit shallow at first.
Of the corrupt government officials involved in the cover up, Stacy Keach and Edward Norton get the most screen time, with Norton’s Colonel Byer becoming the main antagonist. Keach brings an authentic official weight to his role but is never given much to do other than to give orders, stare intensely and bellow his disbelief when things go south. His is a thankless but necessary role to which he rises far above what is provided him. Norton’s role, on the other hand, is written as the force behind the works, he may not be face of the operation, but he is most definitely the mind, and possibly the fist as well. His Byer is intelligent and fierce, quick to draw a calculated conclusion and act decisively without emotion or outside influence. Ironically, he is provided a small group of geeky IT goons that are far too Stoogey to realistically be by his side – Byer is so much stronger than his underlings they would crumble under his wrath. To their credit, the film makers show Byer reprimanding his staff from time to time, but given his overarching actions taken during the film, Byer’s handling of his teams shortcomings seem too reserved for his character. It’s a bit of an odd balance in behavior.
Byer ends up being a lackluster villain for the film. Another thing that undermines Norton’s efforts to define the film’s main “bad guy” is the lack of conflict between Byer and Cross. They only meet in a brief flashback, one that has little importance except to establish that Byer knows who Cross is. They never meet, they never speak, and Cross is never aware of Byer’s involvement. The film behaves as if there is a tension between the two but fails to provide any weight to that intention. By the time Byer is focused solely on Cross, Byer and his team have already been shown to be too inefficient at handling Cross to maintain any suspense. Cross needs only escape capture, Byer’s involvement in that capture means little to Cross’ actions, at least directly.
The action in The Bourne Legacy is surprisingly sparse but effective. There’s a lot of valley between the film’s action peaks. Thankfully the action scenes are tight and tense. But there’s little more to these sequences than Cross’ escape from the latest attempt to stop him. The character is established early on to be a complete bad ass, so his ability to successfully avoid capture or great harm is never threatened during the encounters that drive the action. The suspense is lost in every action scene, they end up being a victim of set up, an established franchise and no equal force or influence to balance Cross’ abilities. Even when a new operative from a sibling operation is introduced, Louis Ozawa Changchein as LARX #3, that character is never efficiently shown to be the threat the script implies he should be. He’s more of a nuisance than a fully realized obstacle. The two characters, much like Cross and Byer, are never allowed to confront each other face-to-face. Still, the action is exhilarating, fast paced and well choreographed.
The Bourne Legacy is an exciting, thrilling action film that effectively establishes Jeremy Renner as a worthy and promising replacement for Matt Damon. It sets up Aaron Cross as the character to follow as the franchise continues. That’s where the film succeeds, presenting Cross’ plight, his fight for survival, his focus, drive and character. But that’s its only conflict; the mystery of identity, the uncovering of conspiracy are all non-effectual no matter how much the film insists they are part of the story. It’s a great set up for the next film while being sensational and explosive along the way. The film is too concerned with presenting the far reaches of the Bourne exposed conspiracy than building the forces opposing the protagonist. In the end, the conspiracy matters very little and fails to resolve in a satisfying way; however, the root goal of the main character, his need to survive, manages to succeed providing the film with more promise of what is to come than satisfaction in what is shown. Once Cross is able to step out from under Bourne’s shadow, the franchise can only flourish.