The sleeper success of the Bourne film franchise must be a frustrating puzzle to Universal execs. At a time when studios began to focus on material that could make for a lucrative franchise, the first two Bourne films were basically flukes: a troubled production that was delayed a year thanks to reshoots (and animosity between director Doug Liman and producer Frank Marshall), and a follow-up that clearly intended to conclude Bourne's story. It wasn't until Ultimatum (fueled by home video success of the first two) doubled Supremacy's worldwide take that Universal began thinking about making Bourne into a flagship series...only for star Matt Damon to follow director Paul Greengrass out the door.
Still, if Tony Gilroy could help devise a film that worked around Supremacy's happy ending, then it seemed possible that he could think up a Bourne film without Jason Bourne in it. The premise of The Bourne Legacy actually feels pretty exciting for a franchise film: the shockwaves of Bourne's actions during the last third of Ultimatum end up inadvertently rattling Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent in a different program called Outcome. With Jason Bourne and the "failure" of Blackbriar hitting the news, director Eric Byer (Edward Norton) sees the hammer about to come down, and orders Outcome to be completely swept under the rug. Only Cross manages to survive.
The idea of a character in one movie affecting the character in another is great, but the big disappointment is that Gilroy (directing as well as writing) doesn't make the most of the opportunity. Although footage from Ultimatum is used in Legacy, none of it is of Damon; no idea whether Gilroy couldn't get permission or didn't want it, but the overlapping timeline of Ultimatum and Legacy is only minimally important. Instead, Legacy feels more like a standard-issue reboot peppered with the trademarks of the original series. Gilroy also takes his cues not from the amped-up Ultimatum (the best entry in the series), but the slower-paced Identity, putting more of a focus on the characters than the action. Of course, it's not that focusing on the characters is disappointing, but Legacy has the pace of a start rather than a sequel, and audiences expecting this one to move a mile-a-minute will probably be underwhelmed.
On the other hand, the characters Gilroy is focusing on are engaging, downplaying the "stoic spy vs. hard-line villain" formula in favor of characters with a little more humanity. Unlike Bourne, whose cold ruthlesness seemed to be the reason he was selected for Blackbriar in the first place, Renner's Cross seems almost excited to be part of Outcome, and his basic warmth shows through in small doses. A simple dinnertime scene in a cabin between Renner and Oscar Isaac, playing another Outcome agent, does a good job of revealing a nice mix of Cross' personality and training, and hints at the loneliness of spy life. Byer, on the other hand, is more business than bitterness. Other CIA personnel in the previous films were power-hungry old men with skeletons in the closet to protect, but Byer does what he does simply because he believes in it, making him more dangerous but less malicious. Cross also picks up Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) along the way, a biologist whose work helps expand the mental and physical capabilities of Outcome agents. She has a nice chemistry with Renner that Gilroy wisely downplays. Even if these characters could easily fit into a template of Identity, all feel fresh and different from those counterparts.
The second half of the film is better than the first, boasting more action and a quicker pace. Still, little things chip away at the film's overall quality: insistence on calling the pills "chems" is unintentionally funny after awhile, and it seems a little hard to believe that there's yet another program beyond even Outcome, from which Norton draws an adversary for Cross (the fact that Gilroy doesn't tie this guy to the assassin Desh from Ultimatum seems like a missed opportunity). A scene that takes place in a lab unintentionally evokes memories of the recent shooting tragedies; although that's not the film's fault, two people did leave the screening I attended. Gilroy also finishes with an abrupt ending that reeks of Hollywood's usual insistence on leaving things open for the next one, something the previous Bourne movies avoided. At least Cross feels like a worthwhile character to build a franchise around: he's not Bourne 2.0, and that's a good thing.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.