The Bourne Legacy: Introducing your new reptile junkie action hero

There seems to be a major disconnect between what The Bourne Legacy is and what people expect(ed) it to be. I was expecting it to be, at the very least, a decent action movie that would introduce a new secret operative with some level of fucked-up-ness into the world of Jason Bourne, and the movie did meet my basic expectations so I was pretty satisfied with what I saw. Apparently everyone else saw a different movie though, or were expecting something so different—a literal continuation of Bourne’s story, I think—that they were disappointed by what Legacy actually is. So I want to tell you what this movie is NOT, so that you can maybe get down with what it IS. Basically, this is what The Bourne Legacy is asking of you, the viewer:

Support a reptile junkie on a murder spree who kidnaps his dealer in order to ensure a steady fix to feed his drug habit.

That doesn’t sound much like a Bourne movie, right? Right. Because despite the title, The Bourne Legacy is not a Bourne movie. So don’t go in looking for that. Instead go in thinking to yourself, “I’m about to spend two hours supporting this dude’s raging drug habit and the lengths he’ll go to in order to get his next fix.”

The issues with Legacy are entirely technical, not thematic. The plot is no more “dense” than it was in Identity. But the pacing is wildly off-kilter. The first act is too slow, the third too fast, and the middle bits run between full-throttle adrenaline and “let’s stand here and have a moral debate in a basement”. The first act’s lethargic pace is down to Tony Gilroy (co-writer of the previous three Bourne movies and director of Michael Clayton), plotting out three storylines that slowly coalesce until all hell breaks loose. But there’s no excuse for the sequel-baiting at the end. It’s a total cockblock of an ending and was easily the worst aspect of the movie, the one thing they really, truly did not deliver on. Although it is frustrating enough that it leaves a weird “well now I have to see the sequel just to make that worth it” feeling. So maybe it works? (No, it doesn’t.)

While Legacy does have less action than Supremacy and Ultimatum, it’s pretty well on par with the number of action sequences with the first film, The Bourne Identity. It’s just that Identity balanced the action steadily throughout the movie where Legacy crams it all in at the end. Gilroy doesn’t try to ape Paul Greengrass’s signature shaky-cam style (good call, as Greengass is the ee cummings of shaky cam), but goes for a slicker, more traditional feel. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Town) brings a lot of style to Legacy and probably covers some of Gilroy’s mistakes, but at the end of the day, Gilroy doesn’t quite know how to cut an action scene. They’re not incoherent, but like the larger film, there are pacing issues. That has to be co-shared with editor John Gilroy (Tony’s brother and collaborator) who is a decent editor but they definitely struggled with the narrative structure of Legacy.

As for Jeremy Renner, he’s a fantastic actor, but many people seem to think he isn’t cutting it as a leading man which…The Hurt Locker. He can carry a movie. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Aaron Cross is a reptile junkie who is not very likeable. Renner is a hugely charismatic person, and he gives Cross a dose of wit and the odd touch of humor that warms him from “totally cold-blooded snake” to “lizard sunning on the road”. As a protagonist, Jason Bourne was very sympathetic. Suffering amnesia, lost, alone, horrified to confront the truth of what he’d become, we felt for Bourne as he tried to piece his shattered life back together. But Cross has no amnesia. He was not brainwashed. He willingly submitted to the program that made him, he knew what he was signing up for, and despite an early attack of morality, the Cross we deal with is a reptile. This is the problem. We’re used to having sympathy for Bourne, but Cross is hard to sympathize with.

In the beginning, Cross is kind of likeable, a chatty Cathy who desperately craves human interaction. He’s got a touch of Renner’s innate charisma, but once threatened, all that vanishes as the lizard brain takes over and he’s just trying to survive. But survival means drugs (“chems”),  which means getting to his dealer, Dr. Marta (Rachel Weisz, as the Obligatory Girl). For all the mayhem he caused, Bourne’s body count was never that high. He was a reluctant killer. Not Cross. He kills a lot of people and it’s not about getting to the truth but getting to his drugs. He’s a junkie on a murder spree! And he’s the hero!

If you’re looking for more Bourne, The Bourne Legacy won’t be your bag. But if you’re down for a decent action movie about a reptile junkie on a murder spree, have at it. Be prepared to embrace the year’s most bizarre hero.

9 thoughts on “The Bourne Legacy: Introducing your new reptile junkie action hero

  1. Janice

    See – I disagree. I thought the scene where he described why he was so intent on getting his “chems” (I did hate the terminology) DID make him sympathetic and it made me want to know what he would do next, heading on into sequel-land. Also, his body count wasn’t NEARLY as high as Ed Norton’s. I thought it was really clever, and the only thing it lacked was Cross thumbing his nose at the people chasing him the way Jason Bourne did.

  2. Thanks, as usual, for a great review. I agree about the pacing and the cop-out ending, although I like how they’re working out the timeline of the previous Bourne movies and how it relates to this one. I hope this means we’ll get to see Pamela Landy in play again. She’s a great character and Joan Allen herself is fantastic. I think this series also needs more than the Obligatory Girl, even if she is someone as talented and compelling as Rachel Weisz.

    My only disagreement with your review: I actually found Aaron Cross very sympathetic. He wasn’t someone with an elite background, he was an underachiever with no real options but to join the army and even that was only available because the recruiter added 12 points to his IQ. I also wonder what it was he didn’t want to go back to, that was so awful that he would rather stay at whatever facility he was in after he was so badly injured, I’m assuming in the explosion that “officially” killed him. I think he had some very personal reasons for committing to the program and once he became used to being so capable, of course he didn’t want to lose that. It’s like someone with a debilitating mental illness, slowly losing their mental faculties. OF COURSE they’d want to fight that loss. I also never felt that his desire to maintain his physical and mental superiority came from a place of malice. I got the impression he wanted to do some good, but maybe evolved to wanting to do it autonomously rather than as a cog in a machine he couldn’t even see. This evolution is what makes me wonder where his scene with Edward Norton fit into the timeline. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I’m guessing it’s AFTER he’s been in the Outcome program for a while and is seeing how things actually work when you’re in the know and not just a grunt.

    Overall, I’m very excited to see where his character goes in future movies. It also helps that I am a huge Jeremy Renner fan. I want more Mission Impossible, just for him.

    1. This is directed at Janice as well, since you’re both on the “Aaron Cross is actually a delicate flower” train (not mocking you, just a funny line a friend used over the weekend after he saw the movie).

      After seeing it a second time, I did find Cross a little more sympathetic. I was just really taken aback on the first go-round that their angle with the character was “drug addict” (as opposed to amnesia). That’s a really gutsy call, given that they’re already getting the hairy eyeball from the audience for “replacing” Jason Bourne. Both times I saw it, in the scene when he’s yelling at Marta about the chems–Jesus, that obnoxious term–there was palpable discomfort among the audience in the face of her plain terror and his aggression. In fact, when I saw it with a general audience over the weekend, the woman behind me whispered, “Jason Bourne would never do that,” at that point in the film. That’s what I mean by unsympathetic. His introduction is kind of shocking. The entire first half of the movie is just him addicted and needing more pills.

      BUT, then, especially the second time around when I got over that fairly insane characterization call, the “delicate flower” part kicks in and he’s really at Marta’s mercy. My friend was joking, but the larger point we discussed after the movie stands–Aaron Cross is far more dependent on outside help than Jason Bourne ever was. He needs a lot of nurturing in order to stabilize enough to be able to defend himself (and Marta). Once Bourne recovers from his initial gun shot that causes the amnesia, he doesn’t really need anyone else. If Marie, or later Nicolette, had abandoned him at any point, he would’ve been able to keep going just fine. But Cross will absolutely die without Marta’s intervention. You can see him slipping even as they’re getting to Manila and to the pharmacological lab. She is really dragging him the last few feet across the line. Thus, he’s a “delicate flower”, because he needs the push.

      But it leaves Cross at an interesting point if they go forward with another installment in his story, because he’s basically back to square one, character-wise. We know a little more about him, particularly his origins, but now that he is no longer driven by the need for the chems, what is his motivation? Does he keep moving forward trying to get away from the CIA, or does he turn back, like Bourne did, to settle some score? He has a lot less of a score to settle than Bourne, though, except for the whole “you tried to kill me” thing. Bourne thought he was signing up for a special ops unit and then ended up getting his whole personality erased and over-written, but Cross knew what he was getting into (albeit, arguable since he was essentially mentally challenged). But he does remember his past and his desire to not go back to that, so in the end, where Bourne feels betrayed and mislead, Cross is still grateful for the end result of Outcome. So his revenge motivation is maybe a little murkier. Personally, I’d like to see him hunt down Bourne and be like, “WTF dude they’re killing everyone because of you!” and let Bourne cope with the wider fallout of his actions.

      So yes, you are right and he is not totally unsympathetic, but if they go ahead with the Aaron Cross character, they are going to have to fill in a lot of blanks left behind once you take “drug addict” off the character table.

      1. I wonder if that was part of their strategy in extending the series? Leave plenty of questions to answer later about his background so they have more layers to explore for future scripts. Right now, I’m okay with it because I think it’s a good series of films and well-cast, so I’m willing to see more even though this latest ending still earns the filmmakers a little side-eye.

        I love that the doctor had to save their asses at the end. That was a nice way to top off that confusing motorcycle chase. It also balances their relationship a little better.

      2. the woman behind me whispered, “Jason Bourne would never do that,”

        … did everyone forget the scene in The Bourne Supremacy where Jason put a gun to Nicky’s head?

  3. Jessica

    Thanks for your review, Sarah, I think my enjoyment of the movie had a lot to do with my tempered expectations.

    I am on the “delicate flower” train however…I thought he was pretty sympathetic, especially in that one scene that really established where he was coming from in his previous life. Just about broke my heart (I may have been a little overinvested).

    I definitely agree, though, that they are going to have a LOT of character development to do in the sequel. There was a good start, at the end, with his obvious affection and attachment to Marta, which makes him more of a human and less of a reptile, but it will be interesting to see where they take him next.

  4. Evie

    See, I think you’ve missed one of the larger dynamics in the film though. You did not mention the big picture outside of Aron Cross. How the CIA heads where shutting down the entire program, committing immoral acts and killing many people in the process. IF you had recognized this, perhaps Cross would not seem like “reptile junkie” bad guy you’ve made him out as here.

    I view his motives a little differently. See, he was the last person of his “kind” left and Dr. Marta was the last doctor in her class left alive as well. The two of them had the knowledge and capabilities to expose what the CIA was doing and potentially save many people. Now, that may not have been on their immediate minds (they are, afterall, human), but it is definitively possible thanks to him saving both his own life and hers.

  5. Jeremy Renner is nobody’s “delicate flower” but I found him sympathetic in this. Simple-minded Kenneth Kitsom broke my heart.

    Aaron and Marta have a very interesting similarity in that they both did this despicable work for very bad people. They are, essentially, defense contractors. You can dress the work up in noble language (“I did it for the science!”) but the fact is they are cogs in a killing machine. They could claim they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into (unlikely in her case – she’s no dummy) but now that they know, are they really just going to sail off into the sunset? I hope they get into those issues in the next installment!

  6. Buster

    The main problem is that the viewer doesn’t learn completely about Aaron’s sympathetic plight until over an hour into it. I would have re-written it to play in chronological order:
    1. Original Aaron (IQ 68) gets recruited into the army. 2 minutes.
    2. Original Aaron is injured in battle and recruited into the project. 2 minutes.
    3. Genius Aaron & Byer have their “it’s OK to have doubts” scene. 2 minutes. Now you know 6 minutes into the movie that a) Aaron is Algernon and b) he has real moral problems with what Byer is asking him to do. The viewer is on board now instead of an hour later.
    4. Aaron’s punishment in Alaska. Then let the rest of the movie play out.

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