August 10, 2012



THE BOURNE LEGACY:  Watch It At Home – Not Up To the Real Bournes

THE BOURNE LEGACY has been concocted with a combination of ingenuity and desperation.  It exists because Universal–a studio dangerously light on action and fantasy movie franchises in an era where those are at the dead center of the business–couldn’t afford to let the Jason Bourne series die, even after star Matt Damon and auteur Paul Greenglass said they were done with it.  The result is not so much a reboot as a spin-off, and while as action movies go it’s moderately entertaining, it’s inferior in every way to the trilogy that spawned it.

The plot connection to the real Bourne series is pretty simple:  while Jason Bourne was tearing things up during Supremacy and Ultimatum (even though those movies were made 3 years apart, they both took place within a span of a few weeks), all the other nasty government organizations that had secret programs decided they’d better get rid of them too, lest they be discovered.  For nasty government organizations that’s code for “kill everyone”.  Specifically, eliminate all trace of something called Operation Outcome, a dandy little program that was genetically engineering super-soldiers by giving them chromosomal improvements to their strength and intelligence.  (Think Captain America, but without the suit and shield)  The feds wipe out all the Outcome agents with the notable exception of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), and take care of all the important scientists except Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), so it’s only a matter of time before Aaron and Marta are on the run together.

Bourne Legacy is written (and directed as well) by Tony Gilroy, who had at least a share of the writing credit for each of the original trilogy scripts, but Legacy is a far less substantial piece of work than any of the previous films.  The plot is comparatively straightforward, without any of the twists that marked the other stories and kept them feeling fresh–there isn’t even any of the bureaucratic infighting that livened up the expository Joan Allen/David Strathairn scenes in Ultimatum.  (Both Allen and Strathairn, as well as Albert Finney, make tiny cameos here to strengthen the transition.)  It was a terrible idea to have Operation Outcome hinge on genetic manipulation, because it leads to what might be called the Midichlorian Problem:  once you know your hero is a genuine superhero, it makes him less vulnerable when threatened by mere humans, and his feats of derring-do become less impressive.  Gilroy tries to ameliorate this in the last reel by bringing in an even more genetically manipulated foe for Cross, but that just distances the movie even farther from the human-scaled proportions of the Matt Damon films.  The plotline also leads to a silly development in the second half when it turns out that Cross’s only seeming weakness can be cured with a single (if hard to obtain) dose of the right medicine.

Cross is a less interesting character than Jason Bourne, with a duller backstory.  Cross volunteered for Outcome for reasons that make plenty of sense when they’re explained, and he doesn’t have any quest that compares with Bourne’s need to restore his memory and expiate his sins–all he wants is to stay super-powered and not get killed.  This is a particular problem because Renner, while a very fine actor, doesn’t measure up to Matt Damon as an action star.  Great action acting is a very particular talent, one that requires the ability to be engaging and suggest a churning depth of emotions under a seemingly implacable surface.  Damon has that (so does Daniel Craig, which is why he’s the best Bond since Sean Connery), and in the Bourne movies, with hardly any dialogue, is able to take us through all the nuances of his fear, uncertainty, tenderness and grim determination.   Renner is mostly just a tough guy.   And while Rachel Weisz gives a strong heroine/sidekick performance, there are no sparks at all between her and Renner (compare that to the completely unspoken yet oddly riveting relationship between Damon’s Bourne and Julia Stiles’s Nicki in the trilogy, never a romance yet more intense than a mere temporary partnership).  Edward Norton, as the head evil government guy, barks out orders and stares at computer screens and has absolutely nothing else to play.

It would have been unfair to expect Gilroy, who’s only directed 2 previous films, the excellent Michael Clayton and the disappointing Duplicity, to be able to duplicate what Greenglass did in Supremacy and Ultimatum (after Doug Liman established the template in Identity), considering that they’ve become the model for a whole subgenre of action film.  (When even the James Bond movies imitate your style, you know you’ve got something.)  Greenglass, working with editor Christopher Rouse and cinematographer Oliver Wood, had an astonishing ability to keep his films in constant jittery motion and yet also tell a compelling story and maintain a sense of physical reality and spatial lucidity.  What is surprising is that Gilroy dumped Greenglass’s entire technical team (or else they weren’t interested in working on the series without him), working instead with Robert Elswit and John Gilroy (and composer James Newton Howard instead of John Powell).  So Legacy doesn’t really feel like a Bourne film, with a much more traditional, staid Hollywood pace and an emphasis on dialogue scenes.  There’s only one genuine set-piece action sequence at the end, and that certainly delivers stunt driving on cars and in motorcycles, but not with anything like the immediacy and impact that Greenglass brought to such scenes.

The big question, for Universal at least, is:  will The Bourne Legacy keep the franchise going?  At a lower echelon of success, probably so.  The word “Bourne” in the title alone is worth a couple of hundred million dollars worldwide, and the movie may not thrill people but it also won’t send them out of the theatre furious and unsatisfied.  What could have gone into the books, though, as a classy, successful, well-rounded trilogy will instead be protracted and squeezed for every possible dollar of future revenue.  That’s the real Bourne legacy.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."