This review contains spoilers for the Bourne films.
At the beginning of The Bourne Ultimatum, the killing of journalist Simon Ross sets off a chain of events that lead to a satisfying conclusion to the Bourne Trilogy. The same event in The Bourne Legacy is the catalyst for a less thrilling story of the other super-soldiers in CIA enhancement programs that make Treadstone and Blackbriar look positively unambitious and slovenly.
We are introduced to Operation Outcome through a few expository scenes and it quickly becomes obvious that all of the enhancement programs that can be linked to Treadstone or Blackbriar are going to be shut down. What this means in practice is that all of the human resources are going to be liquidated whereas all of the research and paperwork is going to be shifted to some other part of the CIA, where I’m sure it will be safe, to be started again as soon as the fuss dies down. Of course killing all of your field operatives is a little messy; we’ve seen over three other films that it’s not as easy as it looks and things tend to blow up in the CIA’s face when they try it, but hey, here’s hoping they can do a better job this time.
Operation Outcome is all about infiltrating hard to infiltrate places, like North Korea and Pakistan, with brainwashed sleeper agents. Outcome agents have also been infected with a targeted virus administered through two pills, a blue pill that increases intelligence and a green pill that makes you physically stronger, heal faster and react more quickly. It’s not entirely clear why infiltrating spies need super-strength or what Jeremy Renner’s character, Aaron Cross, would be infiltrating as a whiter-than-white all-American GI Joe type, but let’s not quibble over minor details.
It turns out the CIA has learnt something from Jason Bourne; the easiest way to kill the Outcome agents is to switch their medication. Outcome agent handlers switch the blue and green pills with a single yellow pill and explain to the agents that they’ve changed the medication program. The pills kill the agents within a few hours, leaving unexplained dead bodies of young, physically fit people all over the world to be examined, investigated, etc., and no other loose ends. Why the CIA felt the need to have an entirely different pill, with the possibility that the agents might think that it’s a bit suspect, when they could have achieved the same effect by tampering with the blue or green pill is a further mystery.
In comparison to the method chosen to kill Cross the pill switch seems relatively sensible. Cross has holed up with another Outcome agent in a Log Cabin in Alaska, and after a few hours of ridiculously engineered tension (why did Cross lie? Why did the other agent take offence?), they hear something on the wind. Using movie sixth sense, Cross and Agent 3 decide that it’s something weird and start to move to positions away from the cabin, just in case. Cross is just out of the door when a drone-delivered missile destroys the cabin and Agent 3. Why didn’t the CIA just supply more fake medicine in the drone, which would probably have been cheaper, less destructive and less likely to fail? Still, in for a penny and all that, when it fails to work once, the CIA come round for a second pass, and when the Drone is destroyed by Cross with a hunting rifle, they send another drone for a third attempt. Cross has figured out that it’s the CIA that are after him at this point, so uses some tinfoil and a metal plate to cover up the GPS tracker surgically implanted in his abdomen, which of course he would know about. Miraculously, this works, and after some quick surgery to remove the tracker and a fight with a wolf to place said tracker in the belly of the beast, Cross is able to evade destruction and makes his way to civilisation, weak from loss of blood, with no supplies, 300 miles from the nearest human being…
I’ll dispense with the rest of the plot for brevity’s sake. It doesn’t really matter what happens, as you’ve seen it all before, done better, most recently in the other Bourne films. Morally bankrupt CIA spook and attendant flunkies – Check. Frightened government functionary targeted for death – check. The even-more-upgraded-super-soldier sent to kill the protagonist – check. Rooftop chase in third-world country – check. What does matter is that the film doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t resolve in a satisfying way. The most frustrating thing is that it doesn’t even attempt to do so. The climax of the film is a chase/fight between Cross and LARX-03, the even-more-upgraded-super-soldier who is introduced an hour before the end of the film, doesn’t say a single word of dialogue and surprises the CIA section head with his existence as much as the audience. There is no direct interaction between Cross and Edward Norton’s character, Byer, the main antagonist, except in flashback and there is no resolution to their personal story.
All of the antagonists at the start of the film are still there at the end, in much more secure positions thanks to the brutal evisceration of Pamela Landy’s character throughout the film, and the only significant changes to the status quo are that Cross has got a girlfriend and he no longer needs to take the blue and green pills. The signal to the audience that the film is over is Moby. I’m not kidding, the first indication that the film is near the end is the synth string opening to ‘Extreme Ways’. Again. And then the credits run.
I spent most of the film asking questions that had no reasonable answers. Why did Cross steal the watch from the factory supervisor? So he could obviously bribe someone with it later, despite having $40,000 in his jacket. Why didn’t the CIA kill Marta when they arrived at her house and stage the suicide later? Because Cross wouldn’t have been able to save her if they had been smart. Why is LARX-03 still operational when all the other enhancement programs have been shut down? There’d be no-one for Cross to throw down with in the finale otherwise.
The film makers had a real opportunity to do something different. The first three Bourne movies are largely about who Jason Bourne is, both in terms of his real name and identity and what kind of man he was and becomes. What little thematic interest there is in The Bourne Legacy is based around the same ideas. Byer talks about how the enhanced soldiers are sin-eaters and Cross struggles with his lack of intelligence before the enhancement, both clearly setting up similar questions of moral culpability and identity, but, as with most things in the film, they are not explored in great depth. By changing the main character they could have kept playing in the Bourne universe and explored other aspects of the spy genre. Does it always have to be two people being chased by the CIA?
Maybe that’s the real genre of the Bourne films: two-people-being-chased-by-the-CIA. That’s where I’ve gone wrong. If you like two-people-being-chased-by-the-CIA films, you’re in for a treat, easily one of the top four two-people-being-chased-by-the-CIA films of all time. OF ALL TIME!