The Bourne Legacy never pretended like it was going to be a direct continuation of Matt Damon‘s Jason Bourne trilogy. TV spots and posters hammered into your head the tagline There was never just one, in case the quick-paced camera shots and fragmented glimpses at new protagonist Jeremy Renner still fooled you into thinking Damon had come back for a fourth installment. (Really, Renner resembles a young Liam Neeson to me, but that’s the subject of a whole other post.) And yet, this quasi-spinoff has received mixed reviews, with all the negative ones complaining about how Renner isn’t Damon. HuffPo’s reviewer really took exception with the movie’s radically different context, writing,
Instead of telling a story of relevance or creating interesting characters that happen to exist in the world established by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass (and of course stemming from Robert Ludlam‘s original novels), Tony Gilroy (helmer of the far superior Michael Clayton and Duplicity) takes a proverbial pick-axe to the series, undoing much of the prior narrative while retroactively turning Jason Bourne (of course played by Matt Damon and occasionally seen here in still photographs) into not a conflicted anti-hero but a force of chaos.
That is a way harsh and very unfair assessment. We had a great run with Damon as Bourne — five years and three movies — but just because circumstances forced the studio to bring in a new story and new hero doesn’t mean audiences should sulk. Because Jeremy Renner brings it with every fiber as Aaron Cross, who shares several characteristics with Bourne like superstrength/agility/smarts, and yet they haven’t wiped the humanity out of him. But he expresses these skills and conflicts differently than Damon did… not to mention that his major disadvantage is that he’s reliant on a regimen of green and blue pills handed out by doctors like Rachel Weisz.
Maybe it’s because Renner is such a quiet but intense presence. He never made a big deal over potentially taking over this franchise, he just did his job. (It helps that he had that other big project The Avengers to take up most of his time and get his name and face out there in time for this movie’s release.) Honestly, I think we got complacent with Matt Damon, and this franchise needed a shot in the arm and an entirely new angle at looking at these super-soldiers. The Bourne Identity is what made Damon into an action hero, but by the time the third film rolled around, there were very few loose ends to tie up and very little emotional ground to cover.
Until Slate mentioned it, I had forgotten that Damon’s Bourne is “emotionally walled off to the point of near-catatonia.” By contrast, Renner is funny: He has some excellent one-liners that make you laugh in surprise the way they’re dropped into intense fight scenes. It’s also achingly compelling the way he yearns to just talk to these other people who are involved with the superspy program, whether it’s Weisz as his doctor, a fellow Operation Outcome agent, or even Edward Norton‘s perfect asshole villain. Starpulse makes an apt comparison: “[Renner] does for the Bourne franchise what Daniel Craig did for Bond with Casino Royale—create a hero who is as much human as he is superhuman.” You also can’t forget that writer-director Tony Gilroy wrote all of the Bourne movies, so that narrative thread that reviewers are mourning still exists.
What’s funny is that Roger Ebert was briefly lulled into thinking that maybe Renner was Bourne:
Because he isn’t referred to by name for a long time, and because everybody keeps saying Bourne is still “out there,” and because I had not seen the trailer, I wondered for awhile if perhaps Renner was now playing Bourne, but the film finally, mercifully, produces a Wanted poster showing Matt Damon, which clears that up.
It does sound a lot like that fan theory that multiple men take on the same “James Bond” title for continuity while being entirely separate people. Because a lot of this particular Bourne movie is about the government stripping men and women of their humanity until they’re just remorseless killing machines. We didn’t get a sense of that scope with the original trilogy because Matt Damon was the only one we saw, but we couldn’t have reached that realization here without building on that context.
Renner is Damon’s successor, but he’s also his peer.
Photos: Universal Pictures