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Film Review: The Bourne Legacy


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When watching the Bourne Legacy, I ended up asking myself one question: how does this rate as a Bourne film?

As an independent intellectual thriller, the movie does its job – and it does it better than most.

It’s better because it’s Bourne – the apotheosis of the espionage genre.

But its link to its predecessors is what leaves this somewhat spin-off sequel to Tony Gilroy’s Bourne trilogy unclear in the watcher’s mind.

It has received mixed reviews and this is purely down to the juxtaposition between its performance as a film and the expectations of it as a Bourne film.

The movie starts off with new protagonist Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) demonstrating his capacity to survive in the Alaskan tundra. From the off, you can tell that he was trained by those that trained Jason Bourne.

He finds his way to a cabin (said to be a checkpoint for the agents of his programme) where he is greeted by a tenacious colleague, called agent Number Three.

All the while, Eric Bryer (Edward Norton) is following the events of The Bourne Ultimatum (the shooting of the Guardian reporter, the arrests of senior CIA officials and so forth) and has taken the pivotal decision to shut Outcome, the black ops program that created this whole situation, down.

The decision to terminate inevitably has consequences for Cross, and a missile is sent to the cabin he is in. He survives; Number Three does not.

A good half an hour into the film and the stage is only being set – the opening is rather slow-paced. Though this is not a criticism, as it serves a purpose.

And I like to think this is symbolic: whatever Cross can do, it will never be as strong, fast or effective as the iconic Bourne.

Though, in true ‘Treadstone’ style, Cross does make it out of Alaska and the way in which he does it is pleasing for the trademark action movie follower. He defeats the automated jet that is sent to kill him and fights a pack of wolves on the way – Matt Damon would be proud.

The rest of the plot is triggered by Bryer’s initial decision to call a close to all Outcome operations. A lab where chemicals are produced to enhance the special agents’ physical and cognitive abilities is subject to a mass shooting from a doctor gone mad; it is later revealed that his behaviour is chemically influenced by those in charge to carry out the attack.

Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is the sole survivor of the incident. But naturally, those at the CIA want her dead and assassins are sent to make it look like suicide; at the same time, they have also killed off the other remaining agents.

Cross intervenes; he needs Shearing and what she knows – she was his doctor during training. He dispatches of all imminent threats and drives her to safety.

Shearing explains that Cross is permanently enhanced physically as he was virally injected in the past. However, the only way he can stay cognitively superior is by using the same injection for his blue pills (as opposed to the green pills for physical ability).

For this they travel to the Philippines and, of course, are subsequently tracked – first by the police and then by an agent aptly described as having ‘minimal empathy’.

It’s straightforward from thereon in, and anyone watching without having seen the first three films would feel satisfied at a solid climax to a good movie-going experience. But, as I’ve said, there are issues.

In terms of the grand picture, one wonders if this film is at all needed. Did Tony Gilroy need to extend this brilliant series, dragging it out of a well kept grave that was created by a tremendous finale?

A phrase I’ve come across is that the ‘money men’ thought he did. Perhaps Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass (director of second and third films) disagreed.

But again, this is not a bad film; in fact, it’s bordering on brilliant. However, as a Bourne film, it needs to be measured on a different scale.

This isn’t to say it fails in this respect – on that I haven’t quite decided yet. Though the problem is, in calling a fourth film The Bourne Legacy, Gilroy has inadvertently corrupted our old hero’s actual legacy.

A key part of the plot is that all of Bourne’s achievements were thrown to the wolves (not the ones in Alaska, of course). Pamela Landy is shown to be under threat of extradition and Noah Vosen is going to run free. Albert Hirsch, meanwhile, has died of a ‘heart attack’.

So what is this film telling us? That the near super-human Bourne couldn’t defeat the system?

Perhaps it is an attempt at realism: no one can beat the system. That’s probably the message the film is going for.

But wait a minute; the first three movies showed us that Bourne could and did beat the system. The finale of the Bourne Ultimatum made sense: Blackbriar and Treadstone were goners; it was meant to be the end of the series.

The message was clear: don’t play God, no one is too powerful to be caught.

But now that the series has been revived, Gilroy has had to link one plot to another and undermined everything that the Bourne trilogy stood for as a result. Such scripting U-turns are simply implausible – even if they do allow us to enjoy more Bourne.

So that’s really the only loose thread in an otherwise finely-sewn fabric. The Bourne Legacy is a fantastic, intelligent, stand-alone action film; but if we are to believe what it tells us, then all Jason Bourne succeeded in doing was staying alive (as does Cross). And after three resonant films telling us otherwise over a five year period, that’s something I can’t just swallow.

As a one-off film, it’s an 8/10. But as a Bourne film? Well, that’s an entirely different issue.

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