Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Bourne Legacy: An Origin Story In Search of a Franchise

The worst thing about The Bourne Legacy is probably that it felt like a puzzle piece that was desperately jammed into a spot where it didn't belong in the wrong puzzle. I absolutely love the original Bourne Trilogy, which is probably why it took me so long to get around to watching The Bourne Legacy (eight years after the fact) and Jason Bourne (four years after the fact); I had such high expectations, that there was virtually no way that either of the straggling sequels could live up to them. And I was mostly right. Mostly.

Honestly, I really found myself enjoying The Bourne Legacy for the most part, though it lacked the depth and weight of its predecessors, but something about the whole movie seemed off, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. It was a little distracting, of course, having a Jason Bourne movie without Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). It was a shame that things couldn't have worked out better behind the scenes, even if it was just to have a short scene at the end of the movie where Bourne shows up and meets Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), the super assassin hero of Legacy, like at the end of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift where Vin Diesel makes a cameo and ties the adventure into the franchise proper. But that didn't break the film for me. No, what really stuck in my craw was that The Bourne Legacy seemed like it was an entirely new intellectual property which the powers that be decided to try and shoehorn into the Bourne franchise.

Tony Gilroy, who worked as a writer on the original trilogy, took on directing duties for Legacy in addition to writing. So, it's not as if it's a newcomer who doesn't understand the Bourne franchise. On the surface, it's clearly intended to be part of the Bourne universe, but I got the sneaking suspicion there may have been a little cognitive trojan horse that may have accidentally blended some of Gilroy's ideas for other projects into this one. It happens, where you have a story that doesn't really come together, so you cannibalize parts of that project for other projects, other stories. I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that's what happened here. 

The Bourne Legacy certainly has some of the same elements as The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. It had a secret government-trained assassin on the run from the US government. It had a shady government conspiracy with  a secret black ops programs with a cheeky code name involving highly trained assassins. It was set in that same fantasy spy/assassin underworld that the first three Bourne films established. The tone was there, but the mood of Legacy felt completely out of joint with the rest of the Bourne series, and I think the key problem is the extreme shift in genre between Legacy and the original trilogy: 

The Bourne Legacy feels less like an action spy thriller - though there are still those elements - than it does a superhero movie, and an origin story at that.

While the original Bourne trilogy does have its fantastical elements (I'm not a clinical psychologist, but in this case, I feel pretty confident asserting that amnesia is not a superpower nor does it function even remotely how it's portrayed in those movies), it was still about human beings doing things on a human level. Sure, there's obviously artistic licence taken in terms of highly-trained sleeper-agent assassins, and the CIA/spy underworld, and the laws of physics, but it's still meant to map roughly onto the real world. The first three Bourne movies present an exaggerated or fantastical view of the world for the purposes of entertainment, but they are, to use the parlance of our times, grounded in reality.

The Bourne Legacy, on the other hand, exists in a whole other realm where superheroes are real. I couldn't help but think that Aaron Cross would feel more at home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that the world of Jason Bourne. 

The underlying premise of The Bourne Legacy is that a secret government program called Operation Outcome has trained a group of assassins to be used in whatever black ops the CIA might need them for, and that these assassins are enhanced both physically and mentally by designer drugs referred to colloquially as "chems," ingested as a daily regimen of pills (green for physical enhancements and blue for cognitive enhancements). The whole narrative of the movie is basically about Aaron Cross making the boosts he gets from his "chems" permanent with the help of Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) a doctor working on the assassins in Operation Outcome as part of a firm contracted by the CIA.

Now that premise sounds really fucking cool. But it sure as hell doesn't sound like a Bourne movie. In fact, it sounds a lot more like a Captain America movie. Aaron Cross is a super assassin with enhanced physical and intellectual abilities, but he started off as a lowly private named Kenneth J. Kitsom, who was only able to join the army because his recruiter, in a totally ethical move, added 12 points to his IQ score so he could meet the minimum requirements set forth by the US military. Young kid who lacks the proficiency to be able to serve his country in the military is enlisted despite his shortcomings and signs up for a secret government program that enhances his abilities through the use of secret drugs. I'm assuming the only reason Disney didn't sue was because they figure they'll just own everything some day anyway.

Aaron Cross sets off on his adventure when the CIA decides to terminate Outcome because of the exposure of other similar covert programs Treadstone and Blackbriar that Jason Bourne had helped publicly expose in previous films that the top dogs were worried would lead them to all of the other terrible assassination/espionage programs they're running. After all of his fellow operatives are killed off to prevent anybody from finding out about the designer drugs and genetic manipulation used to create an army of supersoldiers that the US was using to conduct covert, and apparently illegal, operations all over the world without any oversight or accountability, Aaron Cross must go on the run.  

The entire rest of the movie is just Aaron Cross first trying to get some more drugs - like Trainspotting if heroin turned people into krav maga, parkour, uber-ninjas - and then instead trying to make his physical and cognitive enhancements permanent through a genetically modified virus that would in turn genetically reprogram its host. That all sounds crazy enough as it is, but the truly mind-boggling part is how easy it is to achieve this ultimate goal. Well, it's not easy to break into the place and get the medical equipment and the virus. Well, OK, that part's actually pretty easy. But I mean, it's even easier to permanently enhance Aaron Cross' body and brain with a simple injection. How easy, you ask? So easy that Aaron Cross' physical enhancements were already made permanent with an injection before the movie even started. I do have to admit that it is pretty considerate of Mr. Cross to get half of his superhero origin story over with before the opening shots of the film. That way, the movie itself can focus on more ass-kicking, sick motorcycle chases, and exploding wolves. Because that's how you fucking get things done in America, son.

Tell me one more time how
Hawkeye sucks. 

That's right, the government secretly already made Aaron Cross' and all his fellow supersoldier's physical enhancements permanent with the genetic virus dealy without telling any of them, and still keeping up with the sham of having them continue to believe they needed the drug to keep their abilities. Now that's a super interesting idea. A secret government program of highly trailed super-powered assassins that they control by keeping them reliant on a drug they don't even need as a means of psychological manipulation and control. So guess how much time The Bourne Legacy spends mining such an incredibly rich concept central both to the themes of the movie and to the character of Aaron Cross himself? Exactly one scene. How long does it take Aaron Cross to get over the effects of the second virus that make his intellectual gains permanent? About a scene and a half where his 24-hours of flu-like symptoms are quickly glossed over. 

And the whole idea of Cross' previously low IQ? I mean, the entire plot of the second half of the movie is driven by his desperate attempt to get the treatment he needs so he doesn't revert to Forest Gump levels of cognitive capabilities, but how many scenes actually address the issue directly? One, and that one only mentioned it in passing. Again, incredibly compelling idea with a whole host of ethical and philosophical implications and impact on Aaron Cross' character development. (Like, not even a mention of the potential life-changing medical procedures of physical and cognitive enhancement that could help people with all kinds of degenerative conditions? Not even a thought?) Even as a narrative parallel to Jason Bourne's journey it would have made sense to explore. Like Bourne, Aaron Cross was somebody who essentially had his identity irrevocably altered. Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross both signed up to be super assassins; Bourne ended up on the receiving end of some serious brain trauma resulting in amnesia causing him to reject the identity that the CIA had established for him while Cross was genetically altered to be stronger and smarter and ends up having to embrace the identity the CIA created for him in order to survive.

There's a lot to be mined in The Bourne Legacy thematically if the filmmakers were truly thinking about it within the context of the Bourne universe. Which is why I'm even more certain that Aaron Cross doesn't belong in the Bourne series at all. I have to admit that I haven't watched the Bourne trilogy recently, but I don't recall even the slightest implication that Jason Bourne was genetically modified with super powers. Even more than all of the sci-fi and superhero tropes that are totally out of whack with the tone already established in previous films, this complete lack of the action tying into or driving any kind of thematic or character development is a giant signal that this is a movie that was part of the wrong franchise. If they changed the name of The Bourne Legacy to Aaron Cross, or The Cross Liberation, or some other such variation, they could have easily started their own superhero franchise full of genetically modified supersoldiers and whatever other superpowered people they wanted. 

And they fucking should. Because despite The Bourne Legacy not fitting in with the world of Jason Bourne, I actually really enjoyed it. All of the shit I mentioned may have sounded really nitpicky, because it was. Taken on its own, The Bourne Legacy is an incredibly fun action flick, with a really slick premise of using pharmaceuticals and genetically modified viruses to enhance people physically and mentally. And if Gilroy had leaned full force into the superhero aspect of the story and explored the implications of (and again, I can't stress this enough) life-altering medical treatments that could be used to treat everything from multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer's, or what it meant that Aaron Cross' identity was fundamentally altered by these treatments, or any of the incredibly tantalizing ideas he brought up only to completely ignore a scene later, The Bourne Legacy would have been truly great instead of just good. Although, credit where credit is due, Jeremy Renner did bring the truly innovative concept of smiles to the Bourne franchise. 

Ultimately, it seems that Jason Bourne's legacy is that there's a trilogy of films about him that are so great that other characters are clamoring to get in on the action. But as Aaron Cross found out the hard way, Jason Bourne doesn't even have to be in the same movie as you to kick your ass; Bourne's shadow hung so heavily over The Bourne Legacy that it was never able to crawl its way to the spotlight that it definitely deserved.

The Verdict

The Bourne Legacy was ultimately overshadowed by his bigger Bourne brothers and the attempt to shoehorn it into a franchise where it clearly didn't belong, but it still stand on its own as an entertaining action movie, and a sort of "superhero-lite" origin story. The Bourne Legacy is a 7/10 = One Chem-Enhanced Head Shoving an Explosive Device Into a Wolf's Mouth


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