The Bourne trilogy (Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum) is one of the most dynamic action thrillers in the history of cinema, with Jason portrayed by Matt Damon in the career-defining role of the everyman who finds he’s been programmed by the CIA to be a deadly assassin. The third film ends with Bourne lured out of hiding by reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) promising to write an exposé on Project Treadstone, the CIA program that created Bourne in the first place, then being killed by the assassins sent to also kill Jason.
But what if Treadstone wasn’t the only project that the CIA was using to create super assassins?
That’s where The Bourne Legacy picks up, introducing Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as one of six agents in a Treadstone-inspired project called Outcome. Unlike Treadstone, however, Outcome is designed to create killers who can work alone in high-risk environments.
The film opens with Cross in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, having to fend off a wolf attack and survive a hostile environment until he meets up with another agent (Oscar Isaac). Cross learns that he’s not the only product of Outcome and is forced to make his way back to civilization after a drone attacks their isolated cabin.
Meanwhile, Outcome is masterminded by Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton), the director of the National Research Assay Group that ran Treadstone. But something’s wrong with the program and on the fear that it might all come to light in a Senate investigation, Byer recommends canceling the project and destroying all traces of their research.
One of the people affected is NRAG scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who survives a harrowing attack by one of her fellow researchers, just to go home and encounter more agents from NRAG who might have more on their agenda than just questioning her. In the nick of time, Cross shows up and rescues her, and the chase is on, with her shanghaied into trying to stabilize his drug needs while the NRAG team tracks them halfway across the globe.
I’m an unabashed fan of the original Bourne series and in particular of Matt Damon’s portrayal of everyman Jason Bourne with his tremendous secret. To continue the series without him being involved was a bold step, and to promote writer Tony Gilroy to direct was even more risky.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely pay off.
The biggest problem with The Bourne Legacy is that it only sporadically makes sense, even as it has a similar frenetic energy and impressive action scenes. Without spoiling it, I can’t detail exactly what’s broken, but how does Cross know what he knows? How does he get from one place to another so quickly?
Worse, the base story revolves around the government creating super addicts through genetic-altering mental and physical drugs: much of the film is Cross running, as any addict would, to find his next fix. That Dr. Shearing so quickly decides to help him is hard to accept for just this reason. A bit disappointing as a primary motivator, rather than honor or even revenge.
Still, it’s well assembled and well acted, and the story offers up enough narrative tie-ins to make it a good idea to watch the previous films before going into the theater. Cross is also a good successor to Bourne, it’s the film storyline itself that’s confusing. Indeed, I found it hard to understand most of what was going on during the first thirty minutes of the film, as Project Outcome is introduced and then steps are taken to destroy all evidence of it, while Cross somehow escapes Alaska and makes it back to NRAG in the nick of time.
The Bourne Legacy is exciting and does a nice job of explaining how the series continues without Bourne being involved. But it ends with too many elements unexplained and a crass, everything but a “next episode” end title appearing on screen, which could have been toned down quite a bit, rather than surprising the audience with the closing titles.