Although “trust no one” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to characters in spy films, the truth is that the best spies actually aren’t the ones who refuse to trust anyone. Rather, the best spies are the ones who are good at judging, in a split second, who they can trust.
And that’s not always an easy thing to do, especially for the characters in the “Jason Bourne” film series. Movie audiences were first introduced to the conflicted spy/assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) back in 2002 with a film called “The Bourne Identity,” based on a novel by Robert Ludlum. When Bourne wakes up on a fishing vessel with gunshot wounds in his back and a serious case of amnesia, he’s forced to try to figure out who he is and why his life is in danger. His quest to rediscover his identity leads him to various countries, and he searches for clues regarding a mysterious project called “Operation Treadstone.”
Damon has portrayed the spy three times so far on film, and when he declined to return for a fourth outing, Universal Pictures decided to reboot the series featuring a new cast of characters. “The Bourne Legacy,” starring Jeremy Renner, was released on Aug. 10, and it’s a gritty, complex spy thriller. Although audiences have seemed to respond fairly well to it so far, how does it hold up against the original Bourne trilogy?
“The Bourne Legacy” follows Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another agent who is part of the same type of program as Bourne. The U.S. government has been seeking to create chemically enhanced secret agents who will obey orders without question, but when Bourne goes rouge, officials panic and decide the program has gotten out of hand. When they start killing off all their agents, Cross narrowly manages to escape and teams up with a scientist (Rachel Weisz) who’s been working on this top secret project without realizing how corrupt it has become. The government’s scramble to cover things up grows increasingly messy, and Cross now has to draw on all his skills to escape from the same officials who authorized his training.
So, is “The Bourne Legacy” as good as the original Bourne films? That’s a question I’ve been mulling over since I saw the movie last night. First, I do want to say that I think Universal made a smart decision by featuring new characters. Trying to recast Matt Damon’s role would have been risky, and I like the idea of exploring different characters and storylines within the same “Bourne” universe. The movie’s concept is good, and the film makers have crafted a slow-burning thriller with plenty of layers of conspiracy. The best action set piece is a harrowing chase at the end of the film through the streets of Manila. During this scene, Renner weaves a motorcycle in and out of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and he also slides straight down a narrow gap between two buildings. He performed most of the film’s stunts himself — an admittedly impressive feat.
Still, Aaron Cross isn’t quite as compelling a character as Jason Bourne — though I don’t think this is Renner’s fault. It’s simply easier for viewers to make an emotional connection with Bourne. When we first meet Bourne in “The Bourne Identity,” he’s frustrated, scared and confused, and we as the audience know as much about his past as he does (which is pretty much nothing). We find ourselves rooting for him to put the fragmented pieces of his past back together, and the uncertainty adds a high level of tension to the film that really pulls you into the plot. By “The Bourne Legacy,” the audience already knows all about the Treadstone project and the experimental spy program, so there’s not quite that same level of suspense.
If the script writers had given Renner just a little more to work with, I truly believe Aaron Cross would have resonated more with viewers. I think Renner is an actor with a lot of promise, and I loved his performance as Hawkeye in “The Avengers” earlier this summer. He brought a sense of steely charisma to the role, and he played the character with enough toughness and intensity that he was able to hold his own in an impressive cast that included the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth. And I think what I liked best about his performance was that he was able to let moments of vulnerability slip through without compromising the strength of the character. Especially in his scenes with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (someone film a Black Widow/Hawkeye spin-off, please!), he loses that veneer of self-confidence and shows just how much his work with S.H.I.E.L.D. has cost him physically, mentally and emotionally. There are hints of those types of moments in “The Bourne Legacy,” especially as Aaron Cross reflects back to how he got his start as a spy, but I wish the script writers had included more.
I’d definitely like to see another film featuring Renner’s character, and I think there’s plenty of interesting material left to explore in the “Bourne” universe. I enjoyed “The Bourne Legacy,” but I do hope the next film delves deeper into who exactly Aaron Cross is. I also wouldn’t mind seeing a Cross/Bourne team-up, as well.