The Bourne Legacy is inherently bad. In fact we might be much better off if more franchises took the somewhat novel approach of dealing with an actor's refusal to return to a character by re-conceiving the franchise around that character's absence, instead of clumsily re-casting or, heaven help us, throwing the whole thing out and rebooting things altogether, a drastic step that has been taken far too readily of late. As unappealing as the idea of a Bourne movie without Matt Damon's Jason Bourne in it sounds on paper, this significant handicap has compelled screenwriting brothers Tony and Dan Gilroy (the former of whom has had a hand in the screenplays for all three prior entries in the series, and doubles-up as this movie's director) to be more inventive in their approach to the material than just another "spy fights a conspiracy and also the camera is shaky" movie. It is the classic old scenario of a heavy limitation demanding more creativity, and in the case of The Bourne Legacy, with Bourne himself stuck in the role of rumor, myth, and half-seen ghost, the Gilroys have been obliged to deepen and expand the world established in the original trilogy, focusing less on one man's fight against shadowy bad guys than on the great big system that created both the man and his adversaries.
Whether all this results in an actual, good movie, is something I'm still trying to feel out. The Bourne Legacy: it is all kinds of damned peculiar: the script, without being obviously wonky, is weirdly structured and manages at one and the same time to feel very propulsive without actually going anywhere in particular or having much of a point. For starters, it doesn't really ever decide that it wants to have a protagonist: in the first 30 minutes, there are three entirely different people with entirely different plotlines, and all of them seem to be the main character, sort of, except that since we have presumably seen the other Bourne movies - and Christ help those who have not, because this movie starts tossing around names and situations from the five-year-old The Bourne Ultimatum with barely a how-d'ye-do - we can assume that the hero is the ultra-mega-doubleplus-secret agent on the run from his own agency, in this case Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), though I think it's indisputably the case that of the potential lead characters, he gets the least interesting things to do, compared with Eric Byer (Edward Norton), the government fixer who spends the entire movie running himself ragged in the attempt to stop the nightmarish shit storm that's about to hit all of the black ops programs being run by various U.S. intelligence agencies now that Bourne is flitting about airing all their dirty laundry, and Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a virologist working on the super-soldier program that produced Cross in the first place, who is quickly thrown into a world of spies and assassins that she cannot begin to handle when one of Byer's more draconian stops involves killing everybody who might possibly know anything.
It is certainly the case that The Bourne Legacy has a wildly complicated narrative structure that ends up creating a desperate mess: lots of characters who all have different levels of knowledge about different things keep pinging back and forth, and there are great stretches of the movie that feel very much like an exercise in exposition as narrative, instead of exposition to facilitate narrative, much like in The Matrix or Inception, with the caveat that since Legacy is a grounded in something vastly more like our own reality than those movies, the exposition does get awfully tedious after a point, and that point for me arrived very quickly; if not in the very early scene where a line is delivered that, God is my witness, goes like, "Since you are the director of the CIA, why don't you act like you're the director of the CIA", then certainly before the moment when Shearing gets to tell Cross and us all about her virus magic-science for what feels like ten solid minutes.
The thing that becomes really obvious, really early, is that Tony Gilroy is desperately fascinated with how things work; in fact, looking back at his two previous features as director, Michael Clayton and Duplicity, it's reasonably clear that this was always the case, and that his first instinct as a storyteller is to throw characters into a situation, watch them define the parameters of that situation, and then dig their way out of it. In the far more classical cinematic modes of those two movies, that's a great impulse; I still find Duplicity to be one of the three or four best caper movies of the current century. Even in Legacy, there are individual scenes and moments where this trick of the writer-director works magnificently: the lengthy early passages of Byer barking out orders, listening to information, and processing what to do with it, are utterly fascinating, considerably aided by the best performance Norton has given in years, all worn-out and irritable and desperate to stop being so damn stressed by the five-hundred things going wrong all at once. And then there are horrible moments like the "let's talk about viruses" chats that make up, by my reckoning, the entirety of the second act.
What all of this adds up to is a very talky, very action-light Bourne movie; so action-light, in fact, that I can't find it in my to call it an action movie, merely a science thriller with a lengthy motorcycle chase scene at the end (and not, I am sad to say, a particularly distinguished one). That could be fine - shaking up expectations can be great fun - except that Gilroy has wholeheartedly adopted the visual aesthetic that Paul Greengrass developed on the second and third movies - the shakycam, the violently counter-continuity editing - and it doesn't gel with Gilroy's storytelling inclinations at all, which is really odd considering that, as screenwriter, his storytelling was already part of the Bourne aesthetic. But it's worth remembering that the entirety of his directorial career has happened since Ultimatum, and perhaps he has learned too much to return to Bourne.
The worse problem, anyway, is not that Gilroy shouldn't be working with Greengrass's style (there is a simply awful, unwatchably awful shot of a conversation with the camera whirling around it like the water in a flushed toilet, that has to be one of the single worst decisions in any movie I've seen in 2012), but that the script is just so wandering and confused: having built up a huge new world to expand a new demi-franchise into, and then being so endlessly fascinated by all the little filigrees of who and what and when that they can plug in there, Gilroy & Gilroy simply don't give us any stakes worth a damn: Byer is a poor protagonist because he's the villain, Cross because he's so pointedly unknowable, and Shearing because she's entirely reactive, so we don't end up with any reason to care what happens to anybody or why (those who are onboard with Renner doing what Renner does may disagree; I find him to be, for the third consecutive Big Freaking Studio Tentpole Movie, a nuanced blank, and not terribly exciting to watch). Norton and Weisz being top-notch make their characters feel like real people, but not like real people whose ultimate fates are all that important to anything or anybody besides themselves, and there's far too much sense, especially right at the end, that Legacy's biggest priority was setting up a reasonable direction for the inevitable fifth movie.
Thus, instead of a real arc or narrative, we get a whole mess of moments: some of them are lovely, some of them are terrifically intense (a man stalking around a lab, shooting people with a gun, is thriller-making of the highest order), most of them are pretty much just drab, and only a tiny handful are stolen outright from Hanna. It adds up to a movie that is neither very exciting nor intelligent, too intermittently good to throw away, and a film whose best fate is going to be as the one that people talk during when they're having Bourne movie marathons.
Reviews in this series
The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007)
The Bourne Legacy (Gilroy, 2012)
Jason Bourne (Greengrass, 2016)