With all the excitement about the new Bourne movie featuring the return of Matt Damon, it’s time to look back on a now-forgotten chapter in the franchise’s history: The Bourne Legacy, which was Universal’s attempt to turn a series of movies into a quasi-multiverse.
Instead of Damon’s amnesiac assassin, Legacy featured Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, another operative who must find answers to why his own program is hunting him — a direct result of the events of Bourne Legacy. So what went wrong?
At the risk of Universal waiting indefinitely for actor Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass to come around on another Bourne movie after the conclusion of the original trilogy, the studio moved ahead on a spin-off idea with franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy in the director’s chair.
“I didn’t come on until the rules were that… there was no Jason Bourne. That was the given when I had the first conversation about this,” Gilroy told Collider. The idea that the movie didn’t have to focus on Bourne was seen as a positive. He’d later tell the Washington Post that his reasoning for continuing on without the character was that, “The only thing you can do is say there’s a larger conspiracy.”
That unto itself is a novel idea, both for legitimate storytelling purposes and for franchise potential. It’s a given that Bourne’s fateful covert program wouldn’t be the only one. And it’s not like they were about to recast Jason Bourne, a la James Bond.
The idea may have been fertile ground, but the ultimate follow-through left a lot to be desired. The whole storyline of Edward Norton’s character being a puppet master behind all the programs reeked of series retconning, even with the expected twists and turns of the spy genre. The audience felt cheated, and realized they could just be watching their copy of The Bourne Ultimatum instead.
It’s the same sentiment Michael Atkinson made in his Village Voice review, calling it “Van Halenized, with an abrupt change of front man and a resulting dip in personality.” Simply put, Aaron Cross is no Jason Bourne, and The Bourne Legacy isn’t really a Bourne movie.
The film’s most egregious offense is the CG effects, which were very obvious, especially in comparison to the practical stunts that were some of the best parts of the earlier films.
Its laborious first act features Renner marching around Alaska in what seems like a North Face ad, and political intrigue that involves stuffed shirts bickering over how to guarantee their bureaucratic future in the face of being outed by Bourne. Wow, exciting stuff.
Once Cross meets a biochemist named Marta (played by Rachel Weisz) who holds the key to his abilities — god help anybody who counts how many times the word “chems” is said throughout the film — you’d think it would kick into gear. Instead, it falls back into the same story beats as The Bourne Identity: A citizen and soldier are chased by government operatives through far-flung locales in order to stop the revelation of the program that created him, with an ending that seems to evade the feds and allows them to sail off into the sunset together.
The Bourne mythology doesn’t seem interesting enough to create spin-offs, because anything that branches off from Bourne would only remind people how derivative it is. The Bourne Legacy was a victim of its own premise. There are some redeeming qualities, but it’s better to make like Bourne’s amnesia and forget about it.