Touted as a reboot, The Bourne Legacy is less a rebirth of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne storyline and more of a TV spin off. If the first three Bourne films were Cheers, Legacy is Frasier, except we never noticed Jeremy Renner’s Agent Aaron Cross in the dark shadows of the bar before.
While Legacy borrows a few vague elements from the novel The Bourne Legacy, veteran Bourne screenwriter turned director Tony Gilroy has hitched his wagon to Cross, another top-secret CIA operative with superhuman strength and cognitive abilities. While on a survival training exercise in remote Alaska, we learn Jason Bourne is concurrently escaping assassination in London. If you recall the opening scenes of Matt Damon’s final film in the franchise, The Bourne Supremacy, an intrepid Guardian reporter is fatally shot by the US government on Bourne’s watch. Turns out the relentless pursuit of Bourne in an effort to cover up the genetic reprogramming initiative Treadstone was just the tip of the scandalous iceberg.
Aaron Cross is one of nine operatives in “Outcome,” Treadstone’s sister program “without the inconsistencies.” Like Bourne, everyone who ever mattered to Cross thinks he is dead, killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Unlike Bourne, Cross is well aware of his origins. Therein lies his raison d’etre, his backstory serving as a chilling commentary on personal agency, economic desperation, and genetic engineering. As compelling as this revelation is, it feels inconsistent. Jason Bourne was recruited for his exceptional physique and intelligence, just as Colin Farrell’s character was singled out by Al Pacino’s in The Recruit, and real-life CIA agents are recruited for their exceptional backgrounds. This gives Cross much more to lose, to know what it is like to be decidedly un-exceptional, at the risk of losing everything.
Bourne’s mantra was always a shouted “WHAT IS TREADSTONE?” Cross’s is a simpler, “Where are the drugs?” Like an Oxycontin fiend surviving on the powdery vestiges of his last scrip, Cross is driven by an addiction, and the belief that without government-issued performance enhancers, he will fail.
Of course, our hero finds romance among the ruins of heat-seeking missiles and trained assassins. Rachel Weisz is fierce and vulnerable in her role as Dr. Marta Shearing, a pharmaceutical giant genomist who knows Cross only as subject “Five” until fate throws them together in a global goosechase. Her performance in the scene that really sets her storyline in motion was one of the most genuine expressions of terror I’ve seen in a thriller in a long time.
This fictional CIA killed the Treadstone program with their Black Briar initiative to reduce collateral damage of trained killers and ruined reputations. All of Outcome’s operatives appear to be stable and in control, so they and their cohorts become the collateral damage in a public relations battle in the age of internet. Now let’s pause and reminisce about where we were five years ago, when we last left Jason Bourne in Supremacy. YouTube was two years old. Twitter was barely a toddler and hadn’t gained much traction. Many of the “social media specialists” employed by government agencies and major corporations to monitor and manipulate public opinion were still teenagers.
Legacy feeds on the fear that permeates white-collar offices, in which an errant tweet can bring down a sitting congressman, or a Facebook rant can lead to lawsuits. After viewing cell phone footage capturing a damning expression of cronyism, a CIA lead turns to Edward Norton’s character and demands to know, “Where did you find this?” He responds with, YouTube.”
Legacy preserves the bones of the original Bourne trilogy, with the hunters becoming the hunted, and a prevailing search for truth. When Damon announced he would not do a fourth Bourne film without director Paul Greengrass, fans were worried what would become of one of the better action franchises in film history. For now, at least, those fears may be assuaged.