How do you solve a problem like Matt Damon?
In his three film appearances as amnesiac super-agent Jason Bourne, Damon helped redefine the entire spy thriller genre. He brought humanity to a type of film that had a reputation for being rather cold and unemotional. He played Bourne as a reluctant badass: one whose soulful eyes could barely understand what the rest of his body was capable of. When his beloved (Franka Potente) is killed at the beginning of The Bourne Supremacy, we as an audience feel more profoundly for this loss than the death of any Bond girl in the past 50 years (except perhaps Diana Rigg’s in OHMSS). But the greatest thing Damon brought to the table was believability: we could believe that he was both a real man and a superhero.
So could the Bourne franchise survive without its leading man?
In The Bourne Legacy, that very question is put to the test. The producers have managed to hold on some of the elements that made the earlier films a success: interesting locations, top drawer actors and a story that sees a reluctant hero on the run from shady government subdivisions. Legacy’s story follows Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a CIA super-agent who comes from an earlier incarnation of the programme Jason Bourne belonged to. His body and mind have been improved through science but unlike Bourne, he relies on regular medication to maintain his superpowers. In short, he’s a crummier, weaker version of Jason Bourne.
When the CIA’s secret projects get leaked to the British press, G-Man pencil-pusher Edward Norton makes a snap decision to shut down the government’s black ops divisions, shredding the documents and literally burning their field agents. Renner narrowly survives a drone hit intended to kill him and he goes on the run in search of the special medications required to keep him alive. Along the way, he picks up a sympathetic companion in the form of Rachel Weisz, a sexy biochemist (seriously, is there any other kind of biochemist in the movies?). As you can see, the film does not suffer from any shortage of acting talent.
The action is still very good: there’s a rooftop chase that’s pretty spectacular and an exciting motorcycle chase that sees Renner plow through the streets and markets of Manila. The stunts are very well executed but also very reminiscent of sequences in The Bourne Ultimatum. And indeed, that seems to be the film’s major letdown.
In an effort to recreate the Bourne experience without Damon, the film ends up feeling like a bit of a carbon copy. Writer and director Tony Gilroy (a Bourne veteran himself with screenplay credit on all of the previous films) has stated that he wanted to tell another story within the same world but he seems to have just re-cycled and re-assembled his previous screenplays. On top of that, Renner’s character isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as Jason Bourne.
In the absence of Matt Damon, the makers of the Bourne films have set out to continue the franchise but they’ve ended up making a movie that’s more of an imitation than a natural extension. But while we wish this film was more ambitious, we can’t deny that it is also a very competent spy thriller. It ticks most of the boxes and delivers on all of its promises. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it also does nothing to endanger the legacy of the originals.