The Cold War between the USSR and the US allowed spy novels to flourish after the end of the Second World War. During the 50s and 60s, British authors dominated the genre. However, the 70s saw American titles side by side with their British counterparts. One of the earlier successes in spy thrillers was Robert Ludlum. Among Ludlum’s many best sellers was The Bourne Identity, published in 1980. Considered to be one of the best spy novels written, Identity was turned into a movie twice; the first time in 1988 as television mini-series, the second time as a theatrical feature with Matt Damon in the title role in 2002. A review of the adaptation of the novel to the big screen will come in a later column. This one takes a look at the latest in the Bourne series of movies, The Bourne Legacy.
The original Bourne trilogy followed the story of a man with amnesia, several bullet wounds, and a surgically-implanted message found floating in the Mediterranean Sea. The man follows the message to a Swiss bank where he finds cash and documents with his photo and the name “Jason Bourne”. The story continues as Bourne is pursued by several people, all leading back to Operation Treadstone. Through Identity and the follow up movies, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Bourne works to find out who he is, what Treadstone and its successor, Blackbriar, is, and how to get his life back. The end of Ultimatum worked as the end of Jason Bourne’s story.
However, as seen many times, sometimes studios and publishers can’t leave well enough alone and want to eke every last cent from a franchise. Such is the case with the Bourne novels. Robert Ludlum passed away in 2001, making it difficult for him to write new Bourne novels.* However, his publisher signed on Eric Van Lustbader to continue the Bourne series, starting with 2004’s The Bourne Legacy. Meanwhile, after the movie The Bourne Ultimatum, negotiations occurred with screenwriters, directors, and actors (especially Matt Damon) to continue the movies. When Paul Greengrass, director of Supremacy and Ultimatum didn’t return for Legacy, Damon also pulled out.
Tony Gilroy, the scriptwriter for the three previous Bourne movies and for Legacy, stepped up to direct the new movie. Replacing Matt Damon was Jeremy Renner. However, Renner would not be playing Bourne; instead, he portrayed Aaron Cross, an agent enhanced through a successor project of Treadstone and Blackbriar and an unfortunate loose end that doesn’t clean up tidily when the project is shut down.
The movie starts in parallel with Supremacy and Ultimatum. In fact, watching Legacy without seeing the previous Bourne movies is not recommended. Legacy builds on top of the previous films, and knowledge of what happened before is greatly rewarded. The Treadstone successors are threatened when a video of a key backer and the head researcher is released through YouTube despite all security measures.** Participants of the current project, including Cross, were terminated without warning, with Cross being the only survivor.
As mentioned earlier, Jason Bourne’s story effectively ended in Ultimatum. The Treadstone story, though, hadn’t been fully wrapped up. Blackbriar, introduced in Identity, spawned more projects in the same vein, including LARX, which removed the pesky problem of emotions. Meanwhile, Cross is looking at a different problem than Bourne. Other than being on a hit list and being presumed dead, part of the new project involved using pills to stabilize the enhancements. One pill kept his physical abilities at their peak. Another kept his mental faculties elevated. In a development reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, Cross didn’t want to go back down the IQ curve. His entire motivation through the movie was to stay intelligent.
So, does Legacy work as a way to keep the Bourne series going and as a reboot to the films’ direction? Reviews of the movie have been mixed. Keeping the same scriptwriter goes a long way to help here, though. The tension is still there. Previous events aren’t swept under the rug just because they’re inconvenient.*** Characterization is strong, motivations make sense. Time was fluid in areas, with flashbacks occurring without indication, but that added to the atmosphere. While the first three Bourne movies did focus on Bourne himself, there was also the political ramifications working in the background. Legacy is a far more personal movie, despite continuing the Treadstone story. Cross isn’t trying to bring down a secret project; he’s trying to survive the best he can.
Also helping with the feel is the first shot, with a swimmer in the dead-man’s float from the same angle as the start of Identity. Legacy does get a little over the top at times, but it builds on and extrapolates on what happened in the previous movies, including the training and enhancing. The movie does take a real-world approach to the use of new technologies; they get used, even if the ethics behind them are lacking or non-existent.
Overall, the movie works as a continuation of the previous Bourne entries. There’s enough action to excite viewers while still keeping the tension taut.
Next time, adaptation of the lost.
* Insert joke about ghost writing here.
** The video was recorded at a reception for one of the two men and would be perfectly innocent if there wasn’t already an inquiry going on. I have to admit, I LOLled. It was a believable leak.
*** Unlike what the unnamed agency was trying to do.