There are certainly James Bond nerds, and I’ve come to the realization recently that there must be Jason Bourne nerds in this world, too: fans of the Robert Ludlum novels and consequent Matt Damon films about the American super-spy analog to Bond.
I’ve seen and enjoyed each of the previous three Bourne films, but only one at a time upon release and never in a marathon. Taken this way, the Bourne mythology is so dense I struggle to keep up with the meaning of the codenames (Treadstone? Blackbriar?) and black-bag bureaucratic compartments headed up by a hierarchy of A-list character actors (in the original trilogy: Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney)
However, what makes the Bourne series work is that it can be enjoyed even without getting knotted up in the minutiae. The action is excellent, Bourne is the good guy worth rooting for, his accomplices do their level best to do the right thing once they figure out what it is, and did I mention the bad guys are all played by really great actors?
A pleasing bow was tied on the original trilogy, but someone decided there was more juice to be squeezed from the Bourne fruit by expanding the universe, beginning with the new film The Bourne Legacy. Director Paul Greengrass (Supremacy and Ultimatum) and Damon are gone (for now, perhaps), but replacing them are Tony Gilroy, who directs this time around and has the institutional knowledge of having co-written the original three films, and Jeremy Renner, an actor ascendant on the recent heels of The Hurt Locker and The Town.
Renner stars as Aaron Cross, another American badass in the mold of Bourne (a Treadstone guy, I think), though he’s a bit of a technological upgrade. Cross and others like him — the cohort of Operation Blackbriar, I think — take pills that enhance their physical and intelligence quotients. That’s good when the supply is plentiful but bad for them when their governmental overlords decide to shut them down in the fallout from Bourne going rogue, as seen in the first three movies.
Deprived of his little blue and green pills and with death-bringers after him, the clock is ticking for an increasingly frantic Cross. He finds an ally in Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who worked on Cross in the salad days but now finds herself also targeted for elimination. Introducing to the series a couple solid actors (Edward Norton and Stacey Keach) as bad-guy puppet masters, The Bourne Legacy takes a pleasingly Bourne-ian shape.
I suspect the film rewards even the most attentive Bourne nerds. For at least half the film, The Bourne Legacy takes place simultaneous to the events of Supremacy and Ultimatum. While Norton and Keach are grappling with Cross, they’ve got their other eye on Bourne. Though Damon doesn’t appear in new footage, many of the other films’ costars make cameos. The fourth Bourne film widens the scope: It’s like if the James Bond people made a movie about the other 00 agents and what’s happening to them while 007 is contending with Dr. Julius No and Auric Goldfinger.
It’s old news that the Bourne series is ambitious beyond its James Bond inspiration. After all, the Daniel Craig incarnation was a response to Bourne’s gritty, real-world milieu. The Bourne Legacy tries to deepen the divide in notable ways. The film embraces the murky post-9/11 hi-tech-surveillance, military-industrial-complex aesthetic, replete with drone warfare (death by joystick), spying on citizens, and defeating an intangible enemy no matter the human toll or collateral fallout.
Norton’s character sums up the worldview best: “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” The film also takes the time to hold culpable the heroine of the story: Though Shearing complains that she didn’t make policy — argues that she helped make human weapons for the science of it — the look on Cross’ face indicts her, too.
The Bourne Legacy is nervy stuff: Cross fights off some wolves (shades of The Gray) and shoots down a drone, which is cool. There is also a terrific extended action set piece at the end reminiscent of Terminator 2, as a villainous super-duper killer is dispatched to kill the heroic super-killer and the one he’s sworn to protect. In the sequence, Gilroy does for car chases what Greengrass did for fistfights in The Bourne Ultimatum, editing the action language down to a hyper-condensed series of shots that string together to make perfect sense of the action.
But there are thematic outliers the film struggles to contain, particularly a horrifyingly intense workplace shooting sequence and the attempted enforced suicide of a likeable character. It also suffers from its own premise: Though clocking in at 135 minutes, it contains so much setup that the film almost ends abruptly. Bourne Legacy 2: Legacier promises to be even better, especially if it returns to Renner and Weisz, still hot and sweaty in the Philippines.