There’s been a kind of dead-eyed recursion in the Jason Bourne franchise since its first sequel. Building out a franchise is always tricky because you have to return to a mostly finished story and ask “What happened next?” The minds behind the Bourne movies, though, settled for asking “What else was happening?” As a result, each successive film didn’t extend the story so much as it filled in little corners of the same narrative we’d already seen. For instance: The stinger at the end of the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, makes for a fun, somewhat twisty moment that shows us our titular hero (Matt Damon) spying on a government agency higher-up (Joan Allen) from only a block or two away. The subsequent The Bourne Ultimatum, though, doubled back to flesh out previously unknown and uninteresting things that these people were doing during the events of the second film, making that stinger just part of a larger plot. The narrative retread let the filmmakers avoid the fact that they were making the same movie over and over again, but more damagingly, it lowered the stakes each time. The initial installment was a thrilling modern spy-chase movie with its own story, but the sequels never went anywhere as new or exciting. There is no new threat to the hero, no new story or challenge. The films just keep doubling back on each other.
The Bourne Legacy is, true to its title, a film made to carry on the traditions of its predecessors, which means it suffers from narrowing vision and lowering stakes. Most of the plot, especially at the beginning, overlaps The Bourne Ultimatum, which makes Legacy feel like a collection of extremely high-budget deleted scenes. Everything feels so small here, so constricted, that it’s hard to get involved. I feel bad for director/co-writer Tony Gilroy, whose two previous features as director (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) showed real skill in his focus on mind games and emotional manipulation. He manages to unearth some good moments, and there’s a small kernel of a great modern spy story buried below everything else. Unfortunately, the finished product feels like a sloppy afterthought, and something that could have been a good movie on its own becomes a competent but forgettable two hours tacked onto a franchise that’s still dead and gone.
The heart of the story is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a deadly field agent trained and equipped by the same government agencies that created Bourne. (FYI: I’m going to simplify some of this. Legacy relies on intimate knowledge of the Bourne world, specifically the third film, so in the interests of cleanliness and clarity, I’m opting for a direct approach.) Aaron’s a wonderfully different man than Jason. He knows exactly who he is and what he signed up for, and he isn’t suffering from any of the same moral quandaries or memory gaps that plagued Bourne. Indeed, the one flashback that deals with his unease about his position as an operative is all about how he came to grips with it and decided to move on. Gilroy also finds a nice way to ground the character’s broader dilemmas in our own problems. Aaron is part of a program in which operatives are given regular drugs to enhance their physical and mental performance, and it’s these drugs that allowed him to graduate from the rank and file of other service members to become something more. That’s a fantastic way to touch on everything from the nature of sacrifice to the lowered intelligence requirements for parts of the armed service, but Gilroy doesn’t get to explore it that much because he’s too busy fulfilling what are by now the standard requirements of a Bourne movie: rooftop chase, vehicle chase, pause for breath, repeat.
Aaron is forced to chase down his last available supply of these drugs because a shadowy government oversight agency headed by Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is severing ties with all agents and programs tied to the public catastrophes chronicled in the previous movies. That means all of Aaron’s fellow field operatives, as well as the doctors responsible for monitoring the agents and cooking up their pills, are set to be wiped out. Once the order is given, The Bourne Legacy just watches the dominoes fall. Aaron evades capture while making his way to Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), one of the program doctors who’s managed to stay out of harm’s way, and they just start running. Then they run some more.
It’s not that the previous Bourne movies were light on this type of action. As the franchise changed directors from Doug Liman to Paul Greengrass, things only got more hectic and explosive, and Liman’s already propulsive staging gave way to the blisteringly edited Greengrass films. (By way of comparison, the first film had 1,845 shots, while the second had more than 2,500 and the third had almost 3,000.) Rather, it’s that the action was always in service of a larger story, a mystery to which we had no answers. Bourne’s cat and mouse game with the government agency he’d once called home was exciting because we didn’t know what secrets were yet to come, or how things would play out, or why. Yet there are no such secrets here. It’s simply a bunch of chase scenes stapled together. They could happen in any order. Gilroy pushes through these scenes with a hollow commitment, checking off boxes — extreme close-up, jittery zoom, computer screen — before progressing.
Which is a shame, because again, there is so much fantastic potential here. Renner is the exact kind of swaggering operative who makes for a nice change of pace from Damon, and it’s interesting to follow a character driven not by altruism or a desire to wreck the system but simply to satisfy an addiction. He has a few moments that really connect, too, especially as he spends more time with Weisz and their characters evolve from reluctant allies to something more meaningful. For her part, Weisz brings a believable fear to her character, as well as a nicely revealed resolve that strengthens as Marta and Aaron try to track down the elusive government drugs. Norton perfectly fills out the role of ice-cold bureaucrat, too, and he does it without going over the top or trying to chew the walls. He’s just ruthlessly efficient, content to control the hunt for Aaron from a digital crow’s nest instead of getting into a street fight. Yet for all their work, there’s no escaping the film’s essential pointlessness. Think of it The Bourne Appendix. You learn a couple things, but you’re just as well off skipping it altogether.