The Bourne Legacy is a competent and satisfying spy action thriller, although I suspect it will be problematic for those unfamiliar with the first three Bourne films. This fourth chapter isn’t quite the start of a new trilogy, as some of the ads have suggested; the events of the previous installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, are heavily referenced, as are bits and pieces running through all the films, most notably the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs. It’s never fair, having to catch up on ancient history before delving into a new installment, which should always be allowed to stand on its own. Still, if you can get past the intricate details, you may find that the film is engaging. It benefits strongly from the presence of Jeremy Renner, who takes the reins from Matt Damon as the next superspy-gone-rogue, whose name is Aaron Cross. With a fresh character at the helm, the series doesn’t seem so repetitive.
Although there is unfinished business with the original trilogy, which were based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum, this film behaves as if the story were staring all over again. This means that it’s less about the plot and more about the craft of a spy thriller; scenarios are manufactured primarily so that Cross can employ his superior skills, not the least of which is his ability to engage in hand-to-hand combat. As the film progresses, the action will only get more elaborate and occur more frequently. It all culminates with a rather spectacular motorcycle chase on the surface streets and highways of Manila, at which point Cross is being pursued relentlessly by both an assassin and the entire police force. Does any of this mean anything? I’m hard pressed to say. But I sure enjoyed watching it. And the fact that the final shot is a boat riding off into the sunset suggests the filmmakers knew to not take the film so seriously.
The film opens with Cross, a specially trained agent for a CIA offshoot called Outcome, roughing it in the snowy wilderness of Alaska. At precise intervals, he takes a dwindling supply of blue and green pills, which are later revealed to enhance mental and physical abilities. His unexpected encounter with another Outcome agent (Oscar Isaac) is cut short when a guided missile destroys the latter’s cabin. He goes into pure survival mode; as he’s being shot at by unmanned fighter planes, he removes a tracking device from under the skin of his stomach and forces a wolf to swallow it. It seems Cross is being hunted, although he doesn’t know why. Fortunately, we in the audience do. Here enters Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a CIA official who has made it his mission to have the remaining Outcome agents assassinated. This comes on the heels of Jason Bourne’s personal quest for the truth, which in turn led to the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs being publically exposed.
Meanwhile, we meet Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a genetic scientist for Outcome. A series of unforeseen events, kick-started by her trusted colleague’s inexplicable shooting spree, bring Shearing into Cross’ life, the latter saving her life from CIA agents sent to assassinate her. We, of course, are not supposed to question the ease and speed with which Cross is able to make his way from Alaska all the way to Virginia – or perhaps it was Maryland, although I don’t think it matters in the slightest. That’s just how it happens in stories like this. Anyway, after fleeing the scene of a burning house, Shearing tells Cross that it’s possible to make the side effects of his medications permanent. He only needs to be injected with a very specific type of virus. Trouble is, this can only be done at a pill factory in Manila. And so they board a plane for the Philippines, unaware that the CIA is tracking them down.
The Rachel Weisz character is developed on a somewhat more advanced level than the Franka Potente character from the first two Bourne films. Shearing’s profession, for one thing, has some bearing on the plot, which is to say that her actions can actually advance it. And because she understands the science behind the medications Cross has been taken, she does double duty as a provider of exposition. Having said that, her inclusion is still largely out of obligation for a female sidekick. This becomes especially apparent during the final act, at which point the pace dramatically picks up and we’re inundated with stunts and special effects. It’s strongly hinted that she will become his love interest, which should come as a surprise to no one. I have a feeling their relationship will be much less open to interpretation once the next film is released.
I sound like I’m complaining, but really, this movie gave me everything I expected and actually wanted. It’s not a great film by any means, and it certainly doesn’t try for anything original as far as spy thrillers are concerned, but it sticks to its established formula well, and the cast was engaging. I don’t think we’re meant to delve too deeply into stories like this; they exist primarily as escapist entertainment, giving us plenty in the way of structure and spectacle but not so much in the way of meaning. I knew The Bourne Legacy was intended to be mindless fun when I saw a shot of Jeremy Renner scaling the walls of a house with the impossible speed and fluidity of Spider-Man. I watch these films convinced that there’s no more mileage for a sequel to cover, and every time I’m proven wrong. This either means these films are genuinely good or I’ve become lazy. I prefer the former explanation.