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Ten Years Later, The Would-Be Reboot Bourne Legacy Packs Even More of a Punch
Jeremy Renner's sole starring entry in the Bourne franchise has gotten better with age.
You can't replace Jason Bourne. Matt Damon's hard-fighting, mysterious super-spy has led four different action films over the last 20 years, and left a pretty clear impression on the action cinema landscape with help from writer Tony Gilroy and director Paul Greengrass. So when Damon said he was done with the series when Greengrass opted not to return for a fourth film, it seemed foolish to carry on with any efforts to recast the role or even deliver some kind of prequel with a somewhat younger actor.
Thankfully, Gilroy is smarter than that. The writer behind modern classics like Michael Clayton and recent genre successes like Andor knew that attempting to make another flat-out Bourne film without Damon would be a fool's errand, and opted instead to tell a larger story, a story that's still about a spy but also about fallout, conspiracy, and the lengths powerful people will go to contain their mistakes. The result is The Bourne Legacy (streaming now on Peacock), a film that too often gets short shrift when compared with its more famous franchise companions. True, it doesn't have Damon, and it doesn't have Greengrass' undeniably impactful approach to action. What it does have, though, is a great hook, a committed cast, and a story that just keeps getting more potent all these years later.
If you're not aware of the film, you'd be forgiven for assuming that it's basically a Bourne clone with Jeremy Renner stepping in as a new superspy to replace Damon, but that's just the kind of Trojan horse to get us all in the door. Yes, Renner's Aaron Cross is an enhanced operative working for a shadowy US intelligence program, and yes he's connected to Bourne in the sense that they went through much of the same training and, in a roundabout way, answer to some of the same people. But Cross's story isn't just about another mission, or another daring escape from the same old intelligence bigwigs.
Instead, the film's great success is in the ways in which it builds out from the ending of The Bourne Ultimatum, so much so that careful viewers will even see all the ways the two films overlap in Legacy's first act. With Bourne himself once again in the wind, and the secrets of the Treadstone program threatening to leak out into the world, Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) makes a difficult call. It's time to liquidate not just what's already been exposed, but what could be exposed. That means agents like Cross are suddenly caught in the crossfire, putting Cross on the run while he tries to maintain the government-provided chemical enhancements that make him such a survivor.
Right away, you can recognize the structure of a Bourne film in the story of a spy who's doing everything in his power to survive when the system that made him into a weapon decides to turn against him. The brilliance is in the ways Gilroy uses that structure to tell us something new, expanding Bourne's story out to reveal not just other agents, but other programs with their own superspy and supersoldier assets, all powered by the products developed at a pharmaceutical company where an unsuspecting doctor (Rachel Weisz) also gets caught up in the cover-up slaughter. Together, Cross and Weisz's character, Marta Shearing, have to find a way to escape while the walls are closing in, lending even more of a Bourne flavor to the story.
As anyone who's ever seen a Bourne movie, or any of his other work, already knows quite well, Tony Gilroy can write. His specialty, which he's proven time and time again, is in stories of power, who wields it, and how far they'll go to keep a grip on it, and in that way The Bourne Legacy might be the purest distillation of his writing style and focus in the franchise, in part because it's not directly based on a Robert Ludlum novel in any way. The freedom offered by that lack of tether to specific source material gives Gilroy the chance to explore Jason Bourne's world with more depth, making at least half the movie a dive into the intelligence community's secrets, and the collateral damage that comes when those secrets start to come out. It's a very deft way to expand the story, and yet the film never skimps on action.
The result of this expansion is a Bourne film that, yes, still feels somewhat odd without Damon in the picture, but attains a lived-in, expansive feel all its own when you really tune in to what Gilroy's trying to accomplish. It might not be able to touch Damon and Greengrass at their best, but that's because it never tries to. It's a different kind of Bourne movie, and its own awareness of that fact makes it a better film.
The Bourne Legacy is now streaming on Peacock.