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Far be it from Hollywood to let a good story premise die. Just when the Jason Bourne tale of The Bourne Trilogy of films seemed complete, viewers are told that Jason Bourne is only part of the story—only the “tip of the iceberg.” The Bourne Legacy dives under the water to expose more of that icy monster, featuring a different assassin who is part of an experimental program that takes “assets” and makes small genetic mutations to their bodies. These modifications grow top assassins into killing machines who are slowly, one experiment at a time, becoming unstoppable and inhuman.
The assassins are hardly more unstoppable than the Bourne movie franchise, as its screenwriter, Tony Gilroy returns, this time as writer/director, to aim for another cinematic bull’s-eye. In the style of the other Bourne films, Legacy is more character and story driven than most action movies, but will be a disappointment to Bourne aficionados who were hoping for the level of complexity and depth of the original trilogy. In Legacy, the plot is simplistic and the effort for depth often seems forced, resulting in a message that is less subtle and less powerful than the redemptive theme that marked the preceding Bourne installments.
Legacy’s attempt to communicate the dangers of moral relativism and immorality is admirable and makes it stand out among standard action fare, but this message is ultimately shot to pieces because it is undermined by the actions of its greatest proponent in the story. Legacy desperately needs the help of a stronger redemptive theme, as the film is loaded with the offensive language and excessive violence that featured prominently in the preceding Bourne flicks.
Legacy lacks several of the advantages of the original Bourne movies (exceptional plot and character development, to name two) but is still a thrill-a-second movie of the highest production quality that offers a few thought-provoking moments to help the large dose of potentially dangerous content go down.
Any fan of the Bourne films will already know the truth of Legacy’s tagline: “There was never just one.” Jason Bourne had to fight off several fellow assassins in the first three films. The agents that chased Bourne were from top-secret government programs called Treadstone and Blackbriar. Treadstone was Bourne’s alma mater, while Blackbriar was essentially created to deal with the rogue agent.
With the threat of public exposure looming thanks to Bourne, the government officials responsible for the unpopular assassination programs are either facing indictment or getting extremely nervous. Preparing to cover the messy tracks even while the events of The Bourne Ultimatum (the third Jason Bourne film) are being played out, another government agency moves in to clean up what it can and perform some serious damage control.
This agency’s investigation reveals that Treadstone and Blackbriar are not the only programs to deal with trained killers. There’s an even more confidential, hyper-experimental project underway that has taken the next step—genetic mutation. Through the use of viral drugs, the scientists of this program have found a way to make slight alterations to their human subjects, generating enhanced intellectual and physical capabilities.
Now, with Jason Bourne running loose and targeting the closely related Treadstone, the higher-ups decide the entire science project must be destroyed. Complete destruction, it turns out, requires the murder of every person involved with the details of the experiment, as well as the assassins in the program.
Posted in a remote testing area, Aaron Cross has no clue that his employers have suddenly decided to eliminate him. As a highly-trained, deadly assassin, the sudden threat to his life catches him off-guard, but far from defenseless. There’s just one, big problem—he’s reliant on pills that keep him “enhanced.” Down to his last dose, he needs to find more or he’ll fade fast.
Enter Dr. Marta Shearing, the scientist who monitored his progress in the experimental program. Only together can the two fugitives survive this deadly race for freedom and their lives.
Before Bourne fans scream and run the other way at the seeming transformation of their beloved series into a sci-fi flick, rest assured Gilroy avoids what could be a genre switch with the gritty realism that defined the previous Bourne films. Shot in close, often handheld style, the cinematography has an understated artistry and unadulterated accuracy that belies any science fiction notions.
In addition, Gilroy is careful to stress in the script that the genetic modifications being made are small and through a substance that is sadly familiar to modern culture—drugs. These pills are unusual in that they contain a virus, but they are nothing new in their effect of heightening a person’s abilities and creating dependence on the substance.
While drug content and substance abuse is a new element for the Bourne movies, the use of drugs is not condoned in Legacy. Rather, the dependency the drugs create is portrayed as a weakness that keeps the assassins on a leash, and the consequences on the body are severe. The very thing that makes the assassins physically stronger makes them weaker and vulnerable.
Yet a heavy blow to Aaron’s standing as a hero is struck with the fact that he willingly takes doses of a substance he knows he is reliant on. He is a voluntary addict, though without having complete knowledge of all the long-term damaging effects the drugs may have on him. Even so, substance abuse is not the most problematic aspect of Aaron’s character. He is, after all, a trained killer by trade.
While the first Bourne movies were able to deal with this moral dilemma through a compelling plot device, Aaron’s story presents more challenges in the morality department. Aaron does not have amnesia, nor is he trying to quit being an assassin. Until hunted himself, he is actively choosing to carry out his job of murder, likely with the belief that he is serving and defending his country.
To Gilroy’s credit, the director does attempt to make Legacy into something more than a portrait of a killer or a big-screen bloodbath that glorifies violence. First, he establishes that Aaron is more troubled by his conscience, at times, than most of the other assassins. Aaron also tries to make personal, relational connections with Marta and other “co-workers” that he meets, displaying a level of empathy and even kindness that is uncommon in his line of work. In addition, Aaron takes his superiors and Marta to task in several scenes for their inhumanity, accusing them of abusing their hold on the assassins in the program and questioning their orders when the result is that innocent victims will suffer.
As with the substance abuse issue, however, Aaron’s walk teeters far away from his talk, turning him into more of a hypocrite than a hero. As he challenges the morality of the orders he was given, he still fulfills them and continues to work for the people he knows have a twisted view of right and wrong. Aaron is told that he and others like him are the “sin eaters” for the country, swallowing the immoral filth by doing the “necessary” evil deeds so the rest of the population can live above such perniciousness.
While Aaron does not verbally agree with this point of view, he also doesn’t manage to follow a higher moral code himself. Even after he is on the run from the program he once trusted, Aaron continues to kill without any apparent remorse, whenever he deems it necessary. Unlike Bourne, who was haunted by guilt for the deaths on his conscience, Aaron seems completely unbothered by the many lives he has ended. Where Bourne often incapacitated rather than killed and, when his moral growth was at its peak, pulled back from finishing off even his worst enemies, Aaron shoots to kill without blinking.
In Aaron’s defense, he only intentionally kills people who first attack him during the course of this film’s story, and he does so without anger or aggression and with no signs of craving or enjoying violence. He is remarkably unemotional about killing in either direction, meaning that these murders and the ones that viewers learn he has committed in the past bother him all too little. Thus, the film’s greatest moral message is thereby undermined by Aaron, the person who espouses the issue, but fails to exemplify it himself.
Aaron does avoid one moral misstep that Bourne succumbed to, as the romantic relationship in Legacy is not sullied by sexual involvement outside marriage, at least in this film. Instead, Aaron’s interactions with Marta bring out his most admirable traits of compassion, sacrifice, and love.
Unfortunately, both Marta and Aaron, as well as most of the prominent characters in Legacy show that dire circumstances bring out the worst in their language. Though slightly less frequent than the barrage of profanities in the earlier Bourne films, Legacy boasts several misuses of Jesus’s name, as well as “b----” and multiple uses of “h---,” and “s---”.
Compared with many, much darker and morally twisted films of this genre, the violence in Legacy may be less disturbing to some audiences. The killings and hand-to-hand combat scenes are extremely fast-paced, giving viewers little chance to observe any gory details. There are no torture scenes or slow killings to prolong or glorify violence. Nevertheless, the body count is high, and some are a bit bloody when shown after the fact (several people are shown with blood streaming from their noses and onto their faces).
Viewers should keep in mind that fast-paced violence likely carries with it a higher risk of desensitization when taken lightly. With Legacy, the Bourne franchise (if Legacy is indeed a full-fledged member) also joins the ranks of action films eager to make sure women are not left out, as several female assassins appear and are given equal, deadly, and violent treatment.
As is too frequently the case, such negative content is a stain on an otherwise impressively-made film with excellent production values. The already-mentioned cinematography and storytelling style sets the tone for the realism and impact of Legacy. Thanks to shared authorship in the screenwriting department, there are no inconsistencies or contradictions between this and the other Bourne movies.
Instead, the events of Legacy overlap with those of The Bourne Ultimatum (though without ever showing Jason Bourne), ensuring a sense of connection that will please fans. At the same time, the labyrinth of information and snippets of scenes carried over from Ultimatum means that previous knowledge of the series is a must to avoid getting lost.
Gilroy continues another Bourne tradition by casting actors known for their authenticity and intelligence. Rachel Weisz is the standout presence as Marta, commanding every scene she is in with an emotional power and seemingly effortless reality that makes her one of the best film actors in the business. Edward Norton is strong in his underexplored role, while heavyweights like Stacy Keach, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and David Strathairn pop in for amusingly small roles, as if to prove Legacy’s acting depth.
In his biggest role to date, Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross well, but leaves a bit more depth to be desired. The lack of layers to his character may be more the fault of the script than the acting, as his character is often too emotionally detached or too much a mystery to be relatable and to conjure in viewers a desire to know more than what meets the eye.
More crucially, Aaron never undergoes an emotional change by the end of the picture, making him static and leaving Gilroy in violation of the basic writing rule for creating dynamic characters. Without the depth and accessibility of a Jason Bourne—that perhaps came from the Robert Ludlum novels on which the series is based, rather than the films’ creators—more fantastic elements become a bit of a stretch and the emotional hold of the story is significantly lessened.
The film also suffers slightly when compared with the other Bourne movies in the area of action and fight sequences. Several of the combat and chase scenes have elements that are quite familiar, due to their similarity to sequences already done in the earlier Bourne installments. After three of the best action films of all time, the difficulty in coming up with entirely original material is understandable. Still, the filmmakers do manage to add a few new elements that combine with the tried-and-true for some jaw-dropping action sequences that are sure to have viewers clutching their popcorn buckets.
Perhaps the most unsatisfying moment of Legacy comes with the ending, which feels rushed and is unresolved. Clearly, the filmmakers are leaving room for a sequel or two, but the ending leaves too many loose ends to complete this phase of Aaron’s story, in which viewers have invested time and money to see. In this hurry to the ending, the climax is even hard to identify and realize it occurred until it’s already past. Structural and development errors are not Gilroy’s style, but he disappointingly falters with Legacy, failing to deliver the climax, closure, and meaning that viewers desire.
The first three Bourne films set the bar high, and the makers of Legacy had their work cut out for them to follow the as yet unmatched action trilogy. “Win some and lose some” seems an apt description of Legacy’s success. Omitting or reducing a few of the negatives that sullied the original movies, Legacy still includes more of the same than it should and adds a more dangerous “hero” to the mix. The writing also comes up short, filling the simple story with complicated information, rather than actual thematic complexity.
Without the depth and premise to equal the first Bourne story, Legacy cannot hope to match the earlier films in plot and character interest. Nevertheless, strong filmmaking and honoring the Bourne story means that this film is no insult to or total mistake in the successful series. As in the first three Bourne movies, Legacy poses some good questions, but, unlike the preceding films, it comes nowhere near providing or even trying to propose an answer.
Check out these movies instead:
The Hiding Place (World Wide Pictures, 1975)
The Scarlet and the Black (ITC, 1983)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Lucasfilm, 1983)
For more ideas, check out our What to Watch page!