Review: ‘The Bourne Legacy’ Includes Action and Promise, Leaves Out Third Act

By  · Published on August 9th, 2012

Closure is a funny thing. Many great stories feature the quest for closure. It’s something that, as humans, we are often looking for with great intensity. Where have we come, how did it end and what did it all mean? For the Bourne franchise, based on the books by Robert Ludlum and launching Matt Damon as a righteous American answer to James Bond, closure is something that came along in 2007 with The Bourne Ultimatum. A franchise that came on with a flurry of excitement and pulse-pounding action was brought to a rest with the dizzying style of director Paul Greengrass. And it was good. It was over. Until Universal and Tony Gilroy, who served as writer on the second and third Bourne films, decided that it was time to give this story one more chapter. The only problem with The Bourne Legacy is that even though they brought down the paddles of the defibrillator and shocked this franchise back to life with great electricity, they missed the part of every movie that is important, be it the first part of a trilogy or a stand-alone effort: they missed the closure.

The Bourne Legacy centers around Aaron Cross, an agent not unlike Damon’s Jason Bourne. He’s part of a program called Outcome that exists in a secret corner of the American espionage system overseen by Eric Byer, a soldier bureaucrat played by Edward Norton. As the Treadstone project comes under fire in the events that occured in The Bourne Ultimatum (a story that overlaps with this one), Byer is forced to burn the outcome project to the ground. This burning includes the killing off of everyone with knowledge of the program, including Cross and a researched named Marta Shearing, played by Rachel Weisz. But Cross, like Bourne before him, isn’t having any of this. He needs to use Shearing to help him get the meds he needs in order to make his transformation into super soldier a permanent deal, else he might find himself losing his ability to kick ass and take names. Thus, the chase is on…

As the film progresses methodically, we’re reintroduced to a number of characters. Scott Glenn shows up and looks concerned; Stacy Keach is someone important and also very concerned about Aaron Cross; and Joan Allen even shows up for a second. As the franchise crawls back to life in a first act littered with high talk about tests and beta programs, we’re jettisoned back and forth between Aaron Cross and the present hell being created by Jason Bourne’s antics. Like riding in the back of a car on a long road trip without any sense of time or direction, we see a lot of things happen along the side of the road, but there’s never any great sense of time or rhythm. Then all of the sudden we’re there. And there is here. Where Cross and his lady doctor are running half-way across the world to get their hands on the cure for a low IQ. For all the time it takes to get there, it sure does take skill as only Tony Gilroy has to still make it all seem so bloody complicated.

But lets not mince here. There is some great stuff along the way, especially once all has been established and the real chase begins. Jeremy Renner is a formidable man of action. He’s not as personable or sympathetic as Matt Damon, but he does kick serious ass when called upon. And his chemistry with Rachel Weisz is strong. She’s a great, not entirely incapable companion, who’s much stronger and more formidable arm candy than we’ve seen previously in this franchise. Gilroy’s eye for the action – aided by the continued ambitious work of cinematographer Robert Elswit – delivers in spades. Long following shots are awe-inspiring as Cross parkour-jumps through the rooftops of Manila or up the side of a three story home in rural Maryland. When their star is called upon to look like a post-human superspy, they deliver it all with the tinge of reality. Gone is the epileptic work of Greengrass, in comes a director/DP team that know exactly how to shoot the hell out of a foot chase.

All of this work is completely undone in the end, though. Gilroy and team spend so much time building back this world around these secretive programs and getting our hero on his way that by the time it’s over, it all feels like it’s just beginning. It’s impossible not to feel like there’s a brilliant third act to this film somewhere out there, perhaps being held back for a DVD bonus feature. It’s all rather confounding. The movie delivers the big ideas set forth by the franchise, rich in complexity and nuance. It delivers great performances from the top down. It kicks things into high gear with exceptional action sequences when necessary. And then it just fizzles out and ends. That Moby song comes along, the credits roll and that’s it. There’s no closure to the story, no big climactic moment of heroism. Something is being held back. This isn’t just a fourth film in an action franchise, it’s an act of desperation by a studio in need of a franchise. Gilroy has a bigger story to tell. And it’s a story we’re going to want to see play out on screen. But instead of adding 40-minutes to this 135 minute movie and giving us the payoff, we get to wait for the inevitable sequel. And that’s a cheap way to go, especially for a franchise that built three solid films, all of which stood on their own.

It will be exciting to see where this franchise goes next, but it’s hard not to be a little cross (pun intended) with this cinematic siren song.

The Upside: The action is well-executed, the performances are strong and Jeremy Renner is the right guy to take over this franchise.

The Downside: It’s an unfinished vision, only about two-thirds of the movie it promises to be with its deliberate first act.

On the Side: Director Tony Gilroy said in a recent interview that “we didn’t want to be cheesy and be like those movies where they’re asking you to buy another ticket on the way out the door. But we wanted to leave ourselves in a position where the soil was replenished and the mythology was hopefully a lot more interesting.” I would really love to believe that, but it’s a tall order upon seeing what he’s put together.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)