So you’ve produced a nice neat trilogy that happily ties things together. The director and star don’t appear to be interested in making anymore of these films. What do you do? Option a) recast the star and make another film, or b) (dreaded word time) reboot. Except The Bourne Legacy found a get out clause and throws in option c) expand the universe. This was the right way to go. After all, you had a series of films about a man trying to come back from amnesia and figure out who he was and why some shadowy government agency was so hellbent on getting hold of him - a fourth film would’ve stretched this story much too far, and it’s not like Jason Bourne could go back to carrying out missions after the events of those three films anyway.
Expanding the universe was always a convincing idea. For starters Jason Bourne represented an interesting concept, in so much as looking at how to turn soldiers into “super-human” secret agents, whilst the clandestine missions they were tasked with would fall into the realms of seriously classified and could bring down certain echelons of government if discovered. The tagline used in the marketing collateral is right – there was never just one. Clive Owen in The Bourne Identity. Karl Urban in The Bourne Supremacy. Édgar Ramírez in The Bourne Ultimatum. The interesting story in these films just happened to be constructed around Jason Bourne, so why not do something with another one of his similarly endowed “colleagues”?
Meet Aaron Cross. Part of Operation Outcome, a more advanced and hidden program than Bourne’s earlier Treadstone project, he’s positioned as a more physical and cerebral asset but reliant on a concoction of pills to maintain this. With The Bourne Legacy essentially framed around the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, Cross’ superiors are getting itchy feet that their house of cards may tumble and set about taking out their assets in order to cover themselves. Except Cross goes on the run, gets involved with Rachel Weisz’s Dr Shearing, a lab-based virologist who works for the program, and proceed to travel the world. That may be somewhat of an over-simplification but it should be starting to sound familiar if you’ve seen the other films.
Familiarity is something of the point here, which is both a positive and a negative. As mentioned above the concept of government agencies operating in secretive ways is intriguing and there’s a desire to see more of this, especially when it’s a continuation of something that's been presented so well in the past. Clearly linking the story into familiar events is a logical way to expand the universe, but at the same time when this becomes another film about an agent going rogue whilst a bunch of gifted computer geeks and government men with unlimited resources try to track him down at all costs, it can’t help but feel just a little bit tired even if it is quite exciting. We’ve been here three times before, so more emphasis on the “expanding” of the universe beyond introducing a couple of new characters would’ve been beneficial.
Let’s talk new characters. Weisz’s doctor is interesting enough – she has something of an unexpected life upheaval but deals with it in an un-annoying manner and fortunately avoids anything approaching love interest. Edward Norton comes in as Eric Byer, the man in charge of Operation Outcome and essentially filling the same shoes as Chris Cooper, Joan Allen and David Straithairn in the previous films. I quite liked him in this role but it’s just a shame it was such a facsimile of those that came before.
And so to the key point. Matt Damon created such a definitive character with Jason Bourne that it would’ve been impossible to recast him. There was something mild mannered about him until survival instinct kicked in and he became both cunning and startlingly ruthless. But we were with him from the start as he dealt with confusion and tried to figure out who he was and why he had these skills. Conversely Aaron Cross knows his situation and what’s going on, so we approach him in a different manner. Played by Jeremy Renner, he has a clearer objective yet we learn very little about him, but he remains personable as well as being suitably physical and cunning. As soon as the casting was announced Renner seemed like the right person to play this type of role. His recent turns in The Hurt Locker, The Town and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol brought him to wider attention and convinced of his suitability, and although the comparisons to Damon are inevitable, don’t forget Damon was initially leftfield casting for this type of role and took his time to define the character, so it’s fair to say that Renner is standing on his own two feet so far here.
Tony Gilroy also seemed like the right choice to direct post Paul Greengrass’ involvement at the helm of Supremacy and Ultimatum. As the writer of the screenplays for the original trilogy he was involved enough to know the universe inside out, whilst as director he’s given us the excellent Michael Clayton and enjoyable Duplicity. On the whole I would say The Bourne Legacy is solidly directed too, but it’s not without issues. There’s too much laborious exposition that makes the middle section really drag, whilst the film ends too suddenly and anticlimactically. The action sequences are perhaps not up to the standard of the other films and they are edited far too fast so that they border on indiscernible at times. It’s repeating the original style but in a less effective way. Yet none of these are what I'd call major issues.
I remain entirely convinced that this was the right way to make another film in the Bourne universe, and on the whole it’s a successful attempt even if it’s not quite as good as the others. I wanted to see more from this world so I was always onside with the approach, yet with that in mind it feels a little churlish to complain that it felt a little too familiar and repetitious and over did the references to Jason Bourne. Ultimately they played it safe and that was probably the right idea when trying to make the transition and re-establish, but it means that there should now be plenty more to aim for in future films because the basis for the story has potential and Renner is a well-cast and engaging lead. So, I look forward to seeing what comes next.