And what legacy would that be exactly? Three profitable, well-crafted, power-punching spy thrillers starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, the CIAish agent/automaton who wakes up from his programming one day to realize he has no idea who he is.
Where do you go from there? Well, it turns out that Treadstone, the rogue intelligence program that sent amnesiac super-agents out into the field to kill, slay, stab, was only one of several such hush-hush, super-secret, need-to-know-basis scheme engineered by a cadre of inner-Party members. Outcome was yet another. It’s purpose was to field a half dozen or so supermen and women in some of the diciest places on earth: chemically and virally enhanced transhuman undercover agents who enjoy extraordinary strength, lowered sensitivity to pain, heightened mental acuity, and the ability to cross continents chasing and being chased by psychos while maintaining a very becoming hair style.
When we first encounter Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), he is stuck in the frozen Tundra, evading wolves and frostbite, stopping only long enough to take different colored pills and to draw samples of his own blood. He is quite obviously from someone’s science experiment. Meanwhile, back at black ops headquarters, the powers within the powers that be are not happy. So much is being made public about the Treadstone and Black Briar debacles—via YouTube videos and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who, conscience-stricken, is now going around testifying before Senate investigating committees about all the naughtiness that being perpetrated in the name of keeping America safe—that Outcome has to be shut down with extreme prejudice.
Turns out that the Outcome agents can be “turned off,” literally, when the command is given back in Bethseda. Well, Retired Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) puts on his big-boy pants and makes the decision to pull the plug before everybody and his uncle gets wind of where their tax dollars have been going—and agents around the globe start keeling over.
Except for Cross, who is literally off his meds and so has come unstrung from command center. When a drone fails to take care of him the old-fashioned way, he hits the road—and meets up Dr. Marta Shearing, a lovely research scientist who herself has become a government target after one of Outcome’s zombies, another scientist, fails to kill absolutely everyone in the lab where they both worked, which also happened to play an integral part monitoring and experimenting on the Outcome agents.
On the run together now, Cross and Shearing (sharp names, those) must get to a government facility in Manila so Cross can finally go off his meds permanently without losing his enhanced capabilities—which would mean an unbearable mental and physical collapse.
The vehicle chases through the streets of Manila are certainly up to snuff—to the point where they become almost literally incredible until you remember that you’re dealing with $6 million men (although in today’s dollars, more like $600 million). Director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) certainly had big shoes to fill when it came to keeping the edge-of-your-seat frenzy from slacking. His predecessors—Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Paul Greengrass (United 93)—as noted, set the entertainment bar very high in that regard.
Edward Norton is a nice addition to the series, bringing an immoral seriousness to the role more or less played by Allen in the previous films. Stacy Keach now stands in for Brian Cox and Albert Finney as the big boss who has less control over his team—and its work—than he realizes. (For some reason, you have to enjoy an enormous gut to rise to this level of security clearance in American intelligence.) And I’ll watch anything Rachel Weisz is in; she could stand perfectly still and just make a moopy face for two hours and I’ll fork over the bills. Here she brings just the right combination of intelligence, vulnerability, and spunk to her role, making the perfect companion for Renner and providing the right tone for the drama to work as something more than just a kick-ass action flick.
My expectations were pretty low for The Bourne Legacy (which is why it has taken me so long to get around to it). I enjoyed the original trilogy as much as anything done in the genre in the past 20 years. The fight scenes (rooted in the Israeli military’s Krav Maga technique, with a little Philippine stick fighting thrown in) and especially the chase sequences/set pieces took those conventions to a new level of excitement and camera-work virtuosity. And while it takes The Bourne Legacy a while to get going, about an hour in, when Cross comes to Shearing’s rescue just as her so-called colleagues are about to stage her “suicide,” the entire film gets thrown into another gear and does the franchise proud.
Renner is not very physically imposing, but then again neither is Tom Cruise or Matt Damon, both of whom he has either acted beside (Mission Impossible IV) or effectively replaced. When it comes to the Big Screen, however, size doesn’t matter—it all depends on how well you can fake it. Attitude, energy, star quality—these will carry you much further than being a gargantua like Dolph Lundgren. (Think of tough guys like Bogie and Jimmy Cagney.) The problem for Renner is that, after his amazing debut in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, he’s been stuck in high-profile vehicles owned by other stars. Can he put his stamp on a character all his own and carry a franchise himself?
Cross and the Bourne reboot may be it: but there’s a problem. Bourne always carried with him a certain pathos. He was a man trying to solve a mystery—the mystery of his own identity and his culpability for the terrible things he had done in the persona imposed on him by his superiors. The moral quandary Bourne and his handlers are constantly confronting is still in evidence in The Bourne Legacy (during one flashback, Norton tells Cross, then a young soldier who had seen a lot of civilians deaths, that “What we do is morally indefensible but absolutely necessary”). But if there are to be other Cross-bearing movies, where will that other dimension, that pathos, come from—the Bourne distinctive? What we will have is an endless series of chases—a variation of the Terminator movies, with Cross not literally a robot but someone definitely more than human and in possession of superhuman skills.
Time will tell where the producers and Gilroy (presumably) take Aaron Cross. Wherever that is, I’ll be there to see for myself, which is what they no doubt were hoping to pull off with this dicey project, which could have proved a Bourne too far.