We’re at a point in franchising history where three films will no longer do. Series from Die Hard to Indiana Jones have been expanded beyond their trilogy borders to include a fourth entry; meanwhile, the future third film in the Hunger Games saga is already being split into two parts. Traditionally, conventional wisdom marks the third film in a trilogy as the lesser installment of the series, but as three-parters get expanded to four, so too is that adage stretched out– and if The Bourne Legacy has anything to add to the discussion, then the fourth film is the new third. Call it tepid, call it slack, call it pointless; the real problem here is that from start to finish, The Bourne Legacy displays all of the worst symptoms of franchising.
The film picks up in media res, in a manner of speaking; while it’s not immediately clear, the events of Legacy‘s first act unfold in time with the majority of those of the last film’s. Condensed to the basics, the film has the powers in charge of Operation Blackbriar– the CIA program responsible for Bourne’s existence– on edge about the attention the escapades of the series’ namesake character could bring to their shady works. What’s the best way to proactively handle media scrutiny when you’re harboring countless stables of black ops agents? Terminate the programs responsible for them and initiate the mass-execution of every single field operative– except, of course, the one who gets away. Enter Aaron Cross stage left, whose survival initiates another worldwide manhunt for the CIA’s latest missing “asset”.
Tony Gilroy attacks the material earnestly, but his dedication toward maintaining continuity is his Achilles’ heel. Sidling into the director’s seat for the first time in the franchise after handling script duties on the last three films, Gilroy strives to link Legacy with Ultimatum to the point of self-detriment. His dogged determination to keep timelines intact at all costs is admirable, but ultimately it’s his approach that trips up his narrative. Weaving scenes from Ultimatum into Legacy could have imparted the latter with ratcheting levels of tension, building up to the film’s central crisis with verve. But the callbacks to Paul Greengrass’ last installment in the franchise create a morass through which Legacy struggles fruitlessly.
And it wouldn’t if the story spun between the final heartbeats of Ultimatum had any momentum. We meet Cross straight away as the film opens on him enduring a training exercise in the middle of Alaska that resembles a boring version of The Grey. Meanwhile, his future antagonist, Eric Byers (Edward Norton, showing conviction as the heavy), sits on his heels and observes the fallout of Ultimatum‘s finale before finally putting Legacy‘s biggest plot point into motion. By the time their paths cross, one hour of the film’s running time has gone by, or at least what feels like an hour; regrettably, the film feels at least forty five minutes longer than it actually is. In a tighter picture, Jason Bourne’s actions in Ultimatum would be past tense, and the overarching conflict driving Legacy forward would occur immediately. Instead, Legacy plays flabbily.
Some of it works; the film continues mulling over the concept of deep cover operations and raising questions about their morality and necessity. It’s territory Gilroy has tread before, and probably the franchise’s most essential connective tissue, but this time around that examination ends up feeling half-baked. Maybe the questions have already been answered, and if so, there’s not much point in raising them again other than to rehash the past. Paul Greengrass made two definitive post-9/11 films with Supremacy and Ultimatum, but Legacy reaches no such heights, choosing to feebly plead the case for institutions like Blackbriar before casually dismantling them in mere minutes.
Is Matt Damon’s absence another nail in the coffin? Not especially; he’s missed, even if Jason Bourne remains a ghostly presence in the proceedings, but Jeremy Renner personifies the “good news” element for the film. Renner possesses a different quality of character than Damon, after all, and therefore so too does Cross. Intense, grim, and with a steely edge, Renner marks a welcome departure from Damon’s cooler, better composed veneer. Cross is a survivor, and he’s immeasurably dangerous to boot. Most of all, he knows who he is, and he’s determined to keep himself from reverting back to the man he was before the miracle of science turned him into a government killing machine.
Cross, it turns out, enjoys his superhuman status thanks to the regular ingestion of pills– irritatingly called “chems”– that enhance his mental and physical abilities. In and of itself this isn’t a problem, but they create a rift in motivations that makes Cross less compelling. As the amnesiac Bourne reclaims his Treadstone memories, his becomes a mission of atonement. Cross, on the other hand, chases self-preservation. He flees to stay alive and find a way to make the benefits of his pharmaceutical regiment permanent, with the aid of scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz in a truly thankless stock role). In other words, The Bourne Legacy is about the search for the world’s most dangerous drug addict. Robbed of a cause beyond himself, the only legacy Cross is concerned with is his own.
Watching Gilroy fumble within his wheelhouse is tragic. There’s much and more worth exploring in the Bourne universe, so the idea of restarting the franchise on the strength of Renner’s macho action hero charisma certainly has potential. The Bourne Legacy leaves that promise unrealized, though. Maybe the next installmen will succeed where The Bourne Legacy fails so utterly, but therein lies the film’s worst crime: it’s incomplete. After dragging its feet for a hundred and twenty minutes, The Bourne Legacy ends with a bafflingly antiseptic climactic action scene before leaving audiences with an infuriatingly transparent and lazy message from the studio: for the rest of the story, stay tuned for part two.