The Bourne Ultimatum provided a perfect capstone to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne character, with the closing shots mirroring the opening of The Bourne Identity as we see the recovered amnesiac floating face down in the water. It’s a perfect ending to the series…but there’s more going on than we thought.
In a fresh twist, series writer Tony Gilroy (now directing as well) and his brother Dan (The Fall) have crafted a brand new story that does something very interesting: the final minutes of Ultimatum play out in the background of the first fifteen minutes of The Bourne Legacy, connecting the worlds and pulling back the curtain on machinations that we’ve never seen before but were always working behind the scenes during the previous films. Jeremy Renner stars as Aaron Cross, an agent at another clandestine organization known as Outcome, and he must fight to stay alive when the events of Ultimatum go sideways and the plug is pulled on his program.
The Bourne Legacy isn’t exactly a carbon copy of the previous Bourne films, but there’s enough of a stylistic similarity to keep fans of the original trilogy happy while new characters and storylines are introduced. As a director, Gilroy is much more interested with keeping the action in focus and keeping the audience completely aware of the space around them, something he attributed in a press conference interview to physically being at the various locations and writing the script specifically with certain streets and rooftops in mind for chase sequences. Gone is the shaky-cam of the Greengrass films, replaced here with a visual fluidity that mirrors Aaron Cross’s adaptability; the moments of bone-crunching takedowns are edited for maximum impact, but we never get lost in the process.
Renner is great as Cross, a former soldier with brain damage who has essentially become a superhero through the science of “chems,” medications he takes in the field in order to keep his mental and physical prowess in peak condition. The mental component is the key difference between him and Bourne: both the fact that he’s taking medications for his mental health, and that he is fully aware of who he is and what must be done at all times. Despite two Academy Award nominations so far, Renner is still considered to be “breaking out” to general audiences, and this is another excellent move forward for his career. Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz brings her A-game to the role of Dr. Marta Shearing, a scientist that works for an outside corporation that conducts tests on the Outcome operatives and who has remained blissfully unaware of the real-world consequences of her work until she’s nightmarishly awakened to those realities. She begins the story as a victim, but her strength and perseverance play a big role in driving the story forward, and as she hitches her life to Cross’s in order to survive, the two form a romance that is just barely credible enough to support.
Edward Norton plays the ethically complex Col. Ric Byer, who runs the entire black ops organization from which Treadstone (Bourne’s program) and Outcome (Cross’s program) stem. He’s tasked with delivering most of the film’s exposition, which – in typical Bourne series fashion – is extremely dense and probably needs multiple viewings to fully parse through. Norton is totally comfortable in a role like this, having built his career on playing sketchy but confident characters. In the one scene they share in the film, Byer explains to Cross in a flashback how what they do is “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary,” providing yet another opportunity for audiences to examine how much we’re willing to look the other way from clouded moral judgments to ensure our national safety. These have always been themes explored in this series, and Gilroy takes the opportunity to expose the man behind it all in Byer, while Norton wonderfully gives the part an ambiguity that makes it difficult to easily categorize him as “the villain.” He’s a guy who’s doing what he thinks is right, and it’s up to the audience to decide where that line is and if he’s crossed it.
Universal was backed into a corner when Greengrass and Damon walked from the franchise a few years back, but the Gilroy family (Tony and Dan co-wrote the script, while their brother John edited the picture) managed to come up with a unique workaround that I don’t believe has been done before. By playing out the action of a previous movie in the background here (there’s even a phone call from Ultimatum into Legacy), they sort of brilliantly sidestepped the behind-the-scenes troubles of the project and kept most of the narrative integrity of the series in tact. The closest analogue I can think of is Saw IV, which is revealed to take place at the same time as the events of Saw III. Apples and oranges, though, because the Saw series is more of a constant story than The Bourne Legacy, which aims to start its own spin-off franchise following Cross and Shearing in future adventures. Which brings me to my next point.
We’ve seen sequel-baiting before in films like Tron: Legacy (Cillian Murphy as the future bad guy!) or Downey’s first Sherlock Holmes, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any project so blatantly set up for a sequel by wrapping up such few plot points before it ends. This movie features an 18 minute motorcycle chase sequence – which is very impressive, but honestly goes on a bit too long – and then almost immediately cuts to the main characters sailing away on a boat examining their options. Roll credits. Huh? Where’s the denouement? They go from a climactic chase to the end of the film without ever letting us know what happens with Edward Norton’s character or anyone else in Washington. Say what you will about Tron: Legacy and Sherlock Holmes, but at least they told complete stories while blatantly setting up for their sequels. The Bourne Legacy just ends out of nowhere, leaving so many unanswered questions I truly felt as if I’d just seen the first two acts of the movie and there should have been an extra thirty minutes added to wrap everything up.
Despite its occasionally confusing minutiae, I was with Legacy up until its final minutes. But when Gilroy decided to tell a new story using the previous films in the series as a foundation, I wish he also would have decided to tell us the whole story instead of just the first two acts of it. Future movies will surely follow Renner and Weisz on their adventures after they sail off into the sunset, but I still felt more cheated by this movie’s ending than any other film I can remember. Until next time…