I guess it's lucky that I had just watched Bourne Ultimatum the night before I watched Bourne Legacy because if I hadn't, the first half of this spinoff flick would have made almost no sense. Tony Gilroy, who wrote the first three films, took over as director on Legacy — and it shows. The film is slavishly bound to even the most minor plot points of Ultimatum, and in fact takes place largely at the same time. What that means, unfortunately, is that Gilroy spends so much time trying to shoehorn brand-new character Aaron (Jeremy Renner) into the Bourne universe that the movie teeters on the brink of incoherence. Though there are some cool new elements in this story, like genetically-altered superagents, the exciting fight scenes are weighed down by all the Bourne plot baggage this movie is carrying around.
In other words, Bourne Legacy is an object lesson in how to screw up a reboot.
One of the things that's appealing about the Bourne movies is that they've always aimed for more realism than your typical spy-fi movie. Jason Bourne drives crappy cars in chase scenes, and shoots the bad guy with whatever rifle happens to be lying around. He's badass because he's resourceful — even though he remembers nothing about his past as an assassin, you can still imagine him using a sharpened credit card to get out of an armored car. Another part of this realism was seeing the disorganization in the intelligence agencies who were supposed to be responsible for Bourne. As CIA directors and other angry suits sent various superbad agents after Bourne, we would see these IC bureaucrats in tense conversations that revealed what a mess these agencies had created for themselves, and how secrecy actually undermines national security. The result was a pleasing blend of gritty action, psychological drama, and snatches of Aaron Sorkin-esque dialogue back in Washington and Langley.
We have all of that in Bourne Legacy, but Aaron's story is a lot less compelling than Bourne's was. Instead of wrestling with amnesia and powers he doesn't understand, Aaron's main problem is that he is a less-than-intelligent guy who has been souped up with "green pills" that make him some kind of spy genius. When a reporter from The Guardian (remember him from Ultimatum?) threatens to run a story on the secret project that created Bourne, an Air Force intelligence guy called Byer (Ed Norton) comes in to clean up the CIA's mess. Or the NSA. Or whatever the hell it is. And you know what "clean up" means. He and his team have to kill all the remaining super-agents, including Aaron.
Which is how Aaron, after battling a wolf and climbing a bunch of mountains, finds himself running away from Byer's guys with no "chems." It's a race against time — will he be able to get more greens before his brain goes into shutdown? It's basically Flowers for Algernon or Limitless crossed with capture the flag. Which is actually kind of a great idea. It takes Aaron into the scary world of Marta (Rachel Weisz), a morally vacant research scientist working on the government's experiments into neural programming and genetic enhancement. It gives this series a welcome dose of weird futurism. But instead of taking the opportunity to build an intriguing conspiracy tale around the pills, director Gilroy turns the pill mission into just one level in an overwhelmingly boring game.
A Psychological Thriller Without Psychology
I love Edward Norton, but I couldn't help but laugh out loud when Byer struts into yet another inexplicably long meeting between intelligence agency suits, and says snippily, "I need a crisis suite!" Huh? That's a thing? A thing we care about? I almost expected him to follow up with a request for M&Ms with all the yellow candies taken out. Far too much of this movie is devoted to the suits sitting at their computers looking at bad jpegs of Aaron and Marta and yelling into their headsets. There are multiple scenes where we see them tracking Aaron, and we hear like six people in a row barking the same instructions into their phones, presumably connected up with different agencies. "I need all the surveillance footage from that freeway!" "Yes, all the footage!" "Get me that footage now!" "Do you have the footage? I need it."
Yes, this is probably more realistic than one guy with a glowing console using satellites to zoom in on Aaron's exact location. But it's no fun to watch, and slows the action way down. I think part of the problem, as I said earlier, is that Aaron's predicament is less sympathetic and compelling than Bourne's was. We do sympathize with his desire to stay smart and strong without meds, but it doesn't feel as vital as Bourne's moral struggle to understand who he was and why he killed so remorselessly.
As Aaron and Marta get closer to their destination — a place where they can hook him up with his green "chems" — we get the usual Bourne moment where the CIA sends another badass agent after the good guy. In previous films, these final bosses were played by charismatic types like Clive Owen and Karl Urban. But this time we get a guy who might be charismatic — if he were actually given any lines or allowed to be anything other than a robot. Called only LARX #3 (Louis Ozawa Changchien), he's the result of Bourne-style experiments in an unregulated facility in Thailand. Wordlessly, #3 pursues Aaron and Marta through motorbike chases and crazy city streets in Manila. And the longer this goes on, the less we care. The whole final act of the film feels like a sadly rote actioner punctuated by brief glimpses of Edward Norton and David Strathairn doing headset acting.
In the end, conspiracy thrillers like the Bourne series depend on a compelling central character, and possibly a mesmerizing bad guy. Yes, a film like Bourne Legacy is definitely an action film, but it's also a psychological suspense story. It's about what's happening inside Aaron's mind, as well as how many bridges he can climb and how many intelligence agents he can piss off. When we aren't given any reasons to care about Aaron, or even to be curious about what's in his mind, the whole movie falls apart.