What do you do with a successful movie franchise when your star decides to not to continue playing the same character? In the case of the James Bond films, you just keep recasting the lead, and for the most part in that case, with great success. In the case of the Jason Bourne franchise, you hope that Matt Damon will still want to reprise his role, and in the meantime, you invent a new character that exists in the same world on a parallel timeline as the title character and try to create a reboot/sequel/spin-off hybrid. That pretty much sums up what the aim of The Bourne Legacy is. It’s a bold experiment, and I certainly understand why the makers chose to pursue things in this fashion, but unfortunately, it’s not an entirely successful experiment.
Going into the film, I was feeling pretty good about the fact that it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen any of the previous ones. I figured that would allow me to enjoy The Bourne Legacy as a truly fresh start since I wouldn’t be burdened with comparing it to the other movies. Well, the biggest problem with this movie is that it just wouldn’t let me do that. It’s constantly referencing the previous films; talking about Jason Bourne, talking about what he’s doing, talking about the effect he’s having on everything else, and on and on and on. Considering he’s not even in the movie, his presence looms pretty large; a little too large. I’m never really given a chance to take Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner’s new character) on his own terms because of all the call-backs and references to Jason Bourne. I get it, his story is happening during the same period as Jason’s. It’s an interesting idea, but the execution just hurts this movie by constantly reminding me of those really good other movies. Aaron Cross is an interesting guy, and he’s different from Jason Bourne in many ways, but we really don’t get to experience much of that due to the fact we’re constantly talking about what came before. Tie things together at the beginning of the movie, and then just let Renner’s Aaron Cross run with it; I guess the makers just weren’t confident enough in this new take to do that.
These constant references all throughout the movie do a great disservice to Renner’s character, who is a rather interesting one. He’s not like Jason Bourne; he’s not an amnesiac who’s discovering and then rejecting the man he used to be. He’s had a little scientific work done on him (all explained in extremely lengthy and technical sounding expository scenes that take far too long) which makes him a better product than Bourne. He’s been genetically enhanced both physically and mentally, and his quest is to hang on to those enhancements while the organization that created him tries to take it all away by, you know, killing him (because that’s what all super-secret government agencies do when they want to keep something secret; kill everyone). Of course, like Bourne, Aaron Cross isn’t that easy to kill, and so the chase and the cat-and-mouse games ensue, all with a very familiar (too familiar) air. Again, the makings of an interesting side-story are all present here, but so much time is spent tying it to Bourne’s story, it never gets the chance to really distinguish itself.
One thing that does distinguish itself is a rather disturbing and unsettling scene that plays a lot different these days than it might have just a few months ago. It’s a scene where a man casually and coldly guns down a bunch of his co-workers (again, the solution of choice for top-secret, super-spy projects). It’s intense and not easy to watch, much more so after what happened in Colorado and Wisconsin. It’s really just a case of bad timing. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just too sensitive, but any plot that involves a random shooting of civilians, which is never pleasant to witness in any movie situation to begin with, is just that much harder to view as “entertainment” in light of recent real-world circumstances. The debate is raging over how much things like the scene used in The Bourne Legacy influence real-world events and why we would ever want to view such things in the form of “entertainment”. I get that, I get the concern and the controversy and the debate over it right now. I’m not going to add to that here (although by merely bringing it up, I probably will anyway), but I will say that right or wrong, regardless of feeling and opinions about all of this, I just know that this particular scene probably wouldn’t have registered quite as strongly with me at the beginning of the year as it does here at the end of summer. What does that mean? What does that imply? I leave that to others to debate, I just thought I’d mention it before you head out to see the movie.
Underneath its many flaws—too many references to previous movies, too many scenes that don’t add anything to the plot, the fact that every action scene has been showcased in the trailers, or the fact that there’s a gun in this movie that doesn’t go off (don’t want to spoil anything, ask me about that later)—I think there’s a pretty good action/espionage thriller under here. In fact, I think there’s a pretty good Bourne spin-off under here, it’s just never given enough room to emerge from beneath the shadow of the one that got this franchise started. Truthfully, if this movie leads to a team-up film of Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross finally taking down all those smugly superior guys in suits who “chase” people from a room full of phones and monitors, which could be a great movie, then The Bourne Legacy will be a worthy film as a stepping stone to that much more awesome idea. If that doesn’t happen though, then I’m afraid I’ll always see The Bourne Legacy as somewhat of a disappointment; a film with potential, but one that just couldn’t get away from the greatness that came before it. That’s the problem with legacies; sometimes they help, sometimes they hinder.