I tried to explain the premise, as I understood it from previews, of The Bourne Legacy to my friend as we walked into the theatre to see the fourth movie in the Bourne trilogy. As far as I can tell, I was successful.
Jason Bourne was never really a real person, or at least not who he seemed to be, or Jason Bourne wasn’t his real name, and he had a lot of identities when played by Matt Damon in the first three films and in his role as a part of The Program, run by the U.S. government, or by corporations, or rogues, so it’s okay that there’s a new actor (Jeremy Renner) now in the same role, except it’s not the same role, but. . .
Wait, let me start over.
A few minutes into my viewing of the fun, action-packed, pretty-to-look-at, sometimes cleverly-scripted, but just as often cliché-ridden Bourne Legacy, I started to track dialogue that explicitly acknowledged the story is convoluted, but who cares? My notes include the line, “I really have no idea what’s going on,” in quotes – but I have no recollection of who said it, when, or why.
“Is it possible?” one character asks. “I’ve kinda lost my perspective on what’s possible,” another responds. Me, too! “How do you know I’m not evaluating you?” one spy-like guy says. “I don’t. Maybe you are, maybe I don’t care. Don’t you ever not care?” Perfect! The movie spends its first 30 minutes setting up questions, while blatantly supplying no answers. We jump from Alaska to somewhere in Africa, to Korea – quick scenes, multiple storylines, little progress. Blood, drugs, mystery. What’s this? Don’t dwell – on to the next scene, where a character, playing it straight, says, “You’re not saying much of anything.” No kidding! I’m a third of the way through the movie before I care enough to wonder about a plot point – but I’m not bored until the last third when we’ve been told all there is to know.
Jason Renner plays a guy with a name (eventually), or at least a name a couple of people call him, as well as a number. He’s at a training camp where he’s put through rigorous physical and mental tests while taking a blue and a green pill, occasionally returning to a pharmaceutical research lab for monitoring and adjustments. Something happens (seriously, I’m not sure what, and I’m pretty smart and attuned to details) and this program, being run by some organizations and some powerful people (honestly…), spirals into chaos. Pills must stop being taken, and people with knowledge must stop being alive.
Renner’s character (I’m going to call him Aaron, because some other people do at some points) goes on a quest to replenish his supply of chemicals, because the effects they have on him are compelling. He’s so much smarter and stronger than he was without them, and that’s good. He hooks up with one of the research doctors and they take off on a trip to Manila, trying to stay alive and smart and strong.
As the movie goes on, chase scene after chase scene and plot twist upon plot twist, empathy remarkably grows in me as a viewer as I connect to these two pretty characters who don’t know what’s going on either. Dr. Marta (Rachel Weisz) asks Aaron why he needs so badly to maintain his advanced chemical state, and he responds, “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
I liked the three previous Bourne movies. They didn’t shape my view of humanity or international relations, but they entertained me with intrigue, action, empathetic heroism, and exotic settings. I liked this movie, too, but it’s like Bourne lite, and even while it gives me what I’ve come to expect in a Bourne flick, it also reveals a flaky underbelly.
To wit: what’s a Bourne movie without a car or motorcycle chase on stairs in an urban setting? Legacy gives us that, but in such a way that it somehow feels like, “Here’s your chase scene, I hope you like that we made it 20 minutes long and devoid of any plot or character development!” It gives us the vulnerable yet super-able hero and his reluctant yet capable female sidekick, but then it highlights her need for superhero saving in gratuitous, repetitive scenes. It introduces intriguing political and philosophical situations – a questionably-still-human character chemically programmed to eschew empathy or regret sent to chase down Aaron and the good doctor – but doesn’t develop the premise in any way beyond the surface physical. He’s like a robot, and we’re not as saddened or frightened by the institutional and relational implications of this as we might be if we weren’t running up walls and zipping through traffic for quite such a long time.
Fun (for the most part) to watch, impossible to follow, and undeveloped in potential, The Bourne Legacy is a shot of adrenaline with undefined lasting effects about which I’m ultimately good-naturedly and, apparently, empathetically apathetic.