The Bourne Legacy has been unfairly maligned and not treated with the same devotion as the original trilogy.
The Bourne trilogy of films—The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum—reflected both the politics and filmmaking styles of their time. They featured a disillusioned military hero pushing back against a US government that had run off the rails in the early days of the War on Terror and told his story through shaky handheld cinematography and frenzied cutting. They stand, then, almost as an historical document, declaring that this is what culture was like in the Bush years.
The follow-up film in the series, The Bourne Legacy, has been unfairly maligned and not treated with the same devotion as the original trilogy. Its lackluster reception is attributable to many factors that work together to make a strong case against the film: there is no Matt Damon, Bush was no longer president in 2012 and the chaotic cinematic stylings of the Damon-led films are not present here. But castigating The Bourne Legacy for these reasons is missing the ways in which the film perpetuates the legacy, if you will excuse the pun, of the Bourne trilogy in a positive and effective manner.
Legacy is written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who also wrote Identity and Supremacy (he also technically has a writing credit for Ultimatum, but more on that in a moment). Gilroy represents one-half of the Bourne aesthetic: namely, stylish location shoots and a sharp geopolitical edge that remains ever critical of US foreign policy. Paul Greengrass, meanwhile, who directed Supremacy, Ultimatum and the newest addition to the franchise, Jason Bourne (2016), represents the other half of the aesthetic: loud, over-the-top action sequences, faux-reality handheld camerawork and a rapid cutting style. By all accounts, Gilroy and Greengrass did not get along, to the point that Gilroy quit during the making of Ultimatum and his script was reworked.
While Greengrass’ version of Bourne is more exciting, Gilroy’s conception is better. The character should be an avatar through which viewers can understand and critique the aggression of US foreign policy. He is supposed to show the inherent violence of the US way of conducting business internationally. For example, in Legacy, new protagonist Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is nearly assassinated with a drone, which is, of course, the way that President Obama preferred to eliminate US enemies during his tenure. Greengrass, on the other hand, does not practice a radical politics of critique and his Jason Bourne is an action hero who masterfully pilots vehicles, dodges security cameras and wins shoot-outs. His Bourne is, beyond the superficial manic plot devices, boring; Gilroy’s Bourne, on the other hand, has real vitality and depth.
The Bourne Legacy, then, serves as Gilroy’s riposte to Greengrass. This, for Gilroy, is what a Bourne film is supposed to be. Legacy has the same stellar settings as the trilogy, going to Alaska and the Philippines, among other places. There are plenty of explosions, gunfights and chase sequences as well. But there is also the Gilroy political sting: Cross is a biologically-engineered superhuman weapon meant to thoughtlessly carry out extreme violence as instructed by his superiors. His physical prowess and mental dexterity have been artificially enhanced so that he is better able to wreak havoc. It is a dystopian, but readily believable, plot twist. The new frontier in US military aggression is the super-soldier; Cross is a neo-colonialist’s wet dream.
Legacy weaves an elaborate political thriller storyline around the central Bourne mythos, and, in the process, critiques Obama’s drone war policy and the ever-broadening web of secrets woven by our nominally-democratic government, all while introducing an entirely new set of characters and problems. With Greengrass and Damon’s prodigal return to the series in Jason Bourne, Legacy’s promising innovations are now sadly abandoned—the Bourne universe has been unexpanded.