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Crafting a franchise reboot is a risky business. The process of rebooting a franchise comes with numerous options and most times studios will opt for presenting a character origin that will expand into a trilogy if the first film is successful. After star Matt Damon’s exit, Universal’s decision to reboot their high-grossing Bourne franchise with not just a brand new actor but a brand new character that inhabits that same universe as Damon’s Jason Bourne was an unusual move and one that turned out to be a failed attempt at expanding the Robert Ludlum-inspired world. The Bourne Legacy consistently edges on the realm of adequacy, but never ends up being more than a long and boring venture that treads on the Bourne name.
The Guardian journalist Simon Ross has been murdered in Waterloo Station upon preparing to write an exposé on a top secret program called Blackbriar and a rogue operative named Jason Bourne, who has appeared in Manhattan and enlisted the help of CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Landy, not long ago, was chasing Bourne only to come to realize his position as a once brainwashed agent of the secretive organization known as Treadstone. At the same time, a dangerous CIA operative, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), and skilled assassins from Blackbriar are under orders from corrupt CIA director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) to use extreme force to eradicate the problem that has personified itself as the lethal amnesiac, Jason Bourne. Does this sound at all familiar? Well it should, this is a barebones plot of The Bourne Ultimatum, but just in case you forgot those basic details of the franchise’s third installment, the first thirty minutes of Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy over-explains what we already saw five years ago.
Apparently while Ultimatum was going on, Outcome agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) was braving the intense grey of the Alaskan wilderness. He performs life-threatening stunts within the mountainous tundra that parallels that of Bourne, but Cross regularly pops two pills: one green and one blue, that excel his strength and intelligence respectively. Cross is a genetically engineered soldier of brutal destruction whose development is inspired by Jason Bourne, the prototype for all Outcome agents. But Cross soon finds himself the target of his creators when Director Kramer seeks out Retired Admiral Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) and Retired Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to clean up Bourne’s mess which will inevitably create a PR disaster that could cripple the CIA when the skeletons come tumbling out of their closet. Feigning death, Cross stealthily returns from Alaska and seeks out assistance from his former doctor, neurologist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who can help him find the pills – Cross refers to them as "chems" – that allow him to be a killing machine, unless the CIA can stop him first. Before long, like Jason Bourne and late girlfriend, Marie Kruetz, Cross and Shearing find themselves on the run from the government, thus defining the "legacy" to which the film’s title refers.
Attempting to fill the big shoes that director Paul Greengrass left behind after back-to-back directorial credits on The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, trilogy scribe Tony Gilroy doubles as Legacy’s director and writer, but the filmmaker’s style as the former is not one suited for the frenetic intensity of the Bourne franchise. Gilroy is a fine director and an excellent writer – his debut feature, slow-burner Michael Clayton, was unanimously well received by critics and earned Gilroy numerous award nominations and wins while his sophomore effort, Duplicity, was a hilariously entertaining and sexy spy vs. spy – but his work here is bland and unpolished. The tone of the Bourne universe was outlined by The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman and perfected by Greengrass, but Gilroy’s role behind the camera has eliminated the intensity that permeated through the previous installments. Somehow, Greengrass was able to make every single moment of the Bourne films feel intense and critical. In Legacy, the story progression meanders, the pacing is off, the characters are nothing but cookie-cutter stamps (“good guy” or “bad guy”), the writing lacks bite, the actors look bored, the endless exposition is dull and unnecessary, and the action sequences (which are few and far between) never compare to the phenomenal action set pieces from the Bourne predecessors. And while the action was always a highlight of the Bourne franchise, Gilroy’s development of Jason Bourne was the series’ highlight, which makes Legacy’s biggest problem a surprising one: There are no compelling or engaging characters.
Jeremy Renner, since his consecutive knockout performances in 2009’s The Hurt Locker and 2010’s The Town has proved to be a reliable action star holding his own in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Avengers. He’s a rugged ass-kicker with acting chops to spare, but the character of Aaron Cross leaves him very little room for personality. The most interesting part of Jason Bourne was watching the amnesia-stricken character rediscover his past while Damon’s portrayal of Bourne progressed with each successive film. In Legacy, Aaron Cross already knows his past (a former military man, named Kenneth Kipsom, who was intellectually unready for duty) and is very knowledgeable of the lethal skills he possesses. As a result, it makes emoting sympathy for his character far more difficult and his plight becomes much less compelling. Plus, while Renner and Damon are comparable as actors, their characters are far from the same. Cross can inflict pain, but Bourne’s stamina and ingenuity was apparently not part of Cross’ pill diet. Also, where Bourne was always ten steps ahead of the CIA, in this film, Cross is just lucky because the CIA is not on their A-game. In the supporting realm, Rachel Weisz provides nothing but constant annoyance and the always-great Edward Norton is wasted as the CIA’s Winston Wolf, while returning actors Allen, Strathairn, Glenn and Albert Finney are each provided 60-second cameos.
The legacy that Gilroy hoped to propose is a thin one. The flaws here add up in ways that they never did in the original three films. Even when the film reaches the final action set piece, it feels like there’s a big sign that yells “CLIMAX!” but it’s the least exciting automotive chase to transpire in the Bourne universe. The bottom line is that The Bourne Legacy is not a Bourne film, it is missing two key components: Ceaseless intensity and Bourne. Matt Damon’s absence leaves a huge gap in this franchise that is going to take a lot of stitching in order for fans to accept Universal’s new take on the series. As a fan of Gilroy, The Bourne Legacy is his first disappointment. When the familiar twangs of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” began, I could only throw up my hands in disbelief that the film was over. Nothing is accomplished, nothing is added, none of this is needed. Extreme ways are not back again, and the franchise is far from being "Bourne" again.