Aug 10 2012 12:00pm

“I Just Do The Science!”: The Bourne Legacy

In many ways, Jeremy Renner is not only the protagonist of the new film The Bourne Legacy, but also its analog. The action-adventure spy thriller can be summed up in comparison to his character Aaron Cross: At first you think that it’s good for only one thing (having some transhuman beat up all the regular folks trying to kill him), but then it reveals several surprising layers of humor and genuine pathos that present a more nuanced product.

Still, the premise is simple: It’s because of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) dismantling Operation Blackbriar (in The Bourne Ultimatum) that the CIA starts eliminating its field operatives, including Operation Outcome and Aaron Cross. And yet the plotlines seem to overlap in places. More than once, we cut away from Aaron and Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) to the suits talking about how Bourne has yet again slipped through their fingers. It’s a smart move that makes you feel connected to the main trilogy and provides greater context for the stakes of Aaron’s escape.

The way in which the CIA leashes the Outcome operatives is less mind control, as you might think, and more good old-fashioned drug dependency. The trilogy never really clarified how Bourne became the superspy he is; by contrast, the agents in this movie clearly rely on “chems” for their enhancements, and to keep those abilities. Aaron Cross’ functionality is determined by his daily regimen of green and blue tablets; they allow him to think five steps ahead of his handlers and to perform astonishing physical feats, but get him off his meds for two days and he crumbles. This must be a welcome challenge for Renner; in a recent interview with The L.A. Times’ Hero Complex, he admitted that he found it frustrating in The Avengers that his character Hawkeye was hypnotized for most of the film. “At the end of the day, 90% of the movie, I’m not the character I signed on to play,” he said. But there’s no such mistake here.

The greatest asset that Renner brings to this movie is a wry sense of humor. Damon’s Bourne was too shellshocked to do anything more than respond to the people coming to kill him—and he responds damn well, if you’ll recall his use of a rolled-up magazine as a deadly weapon. But while Aaron too must contend with the government suddenly trying to murder him, he manages to keep his dazzling fight scenes lighthearted. For his first thirty minutes on-screen, Renner mostly goes it alone in the Alaskan wilderness, climbing mountains and fighting wolves in what you imagine must be some sort of sly homage to Liam Neeson’s badass-quotient-doubling film The Grey. That we meet Renner in this obvious parody sets the tone for the rest of his time on-screen: he’s shockingly conditioned to get out of any sort of situation, but pit him against the normal folks and he’ll tease you a little while he’s getting away.

That said, the “normal folks” make up a fine supporting cast. Edward Norton plays Eric Byer, the film’s primary antagonist even though he and Aaron only face off against each other in flashbacks. In contrast to Renner out in the field running for his life, Norton spends the movie moving between offices and war rooms, sending the missiles after Outcome’s human liability. It got me thinking that Norton should round out his career with more roles like this, that he falls short when trying to play superpowered beings like the Hulk and is best utilized as the seemingly average guy who can still order your death.

Moreso than the other Bourne films, Legacy does a fine job of portraying the other cogs in the machine: the scientists who regularly dose the operatives and don’t ask questions about what they do when they’re not sitting on their examining room table. They’re able to compartmentalize and justify that they’re making unheard-of breakthroughs in science; how that knowledge is used, they simply refuse to consider. Despite encountering Aaron twice a year for several years, Marta Shearing refers to him by his number; the quote I used in the title is the weak justification she yells as she and Aaron race away from her home after the CIA tries to get rid of her. In many ways, because they embody the complexities of human rationalization, these characters don’t get every loose end neatly tied up like the Bournes and the Crosses. When Marta’s colleague goes crazy and shoots up the lab, it’s never explained if he were some sleeper agent or if he simply snapped under the guilt.

I could write an entire separate essay on how The Bourne Legacy tackles the transhumanism movement, the quest to overcome fundamental human limitations. There’s no better description for the government’s unapologetic manipulation of these men and women, fine-tuning them into easily-controlled killing machines while they simultaneously market the same “chems” to rebuild cognitive functions and physical decay in average folks. It’s utterly chilling when Byer and co. finally decide to send their “secret weapon” after Aaron and Marta: a being known only as LARX-3, who’s just as resourceful, but has also been conditioned not to be bothered by pesky human emotions. Louis Ozawa Changchien is in the movie for only a short while, but his chase scenes are breathtaking in their intensity.

Transhumanism here is a forward rushing movement that establishes its unyielding stakes: There is no going back. It’s not as if Aaron and his cohorts revert back to bland, average humans without their viral enhancement; their cognitive and chemical impulses have been pushed so far beyond the threshold that they’re too battered to function back at a lower level. They have no choice but to keep running.

Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.

1. markerikson
Why is transhumanism featuring in a Bourne movie? It's like midi-chlorians all over again.
2. elliesaurus
Because genetic engineering is the new nuke. It's how we get our supersoldiers since we've left the days of demigods and divinely-blessed heroes behind. Why is he so good at what he does? Because he's been MADE better. It's how the story justifies the crap the heroes go through. He's made of iron because scientists tinkered with his DNA until he could get punched through walls or fight for fifty minutes taking hits that would stop a tank.

I liked the movie. Definitely set up for a new series, though, which I'm completely okay with. Renner did a great job as Cross and he seems much more fun than Bourne.
3. sofrina
it was a fascinating point that, while marta knew exactly what she was signing on for and "giving up," aaron was incapable of understanding which was why he was chosen for the program. it would be interesting to see an exploration of what it was like for him to gain the intelligence to understand what he'd signed his life away for. holy "flowers for algernon."

and the chase scene really illustrated the difference between the emotional outcome agents and the spartan larx. cross does all of his stunts without hurting anyone who isn't directly interfering with his escape, while larx runs over and through people leaving a trail of carnage and media attention in his wake.

my guess is the lab shooter was the agent stationed in the lab. he killed everyone on orders. he left marta for last because he had a thing for her. he would have killed her if he could have.
4. gadget
The reviewer must of seen a different movie than I. I thought they might as well have put To Be Continued... or Please Insert More Money To Get The Rest Of The Story up on the screen at the end. I appreciated that it was a more cerebral thriller than most action offerings of the day, and also liked the effort to link the narrative to the Bourne movies I have already seen, but at the end of the day it was a premise in search of a satisfying story. There was no real resolution. One may argue that this is precisely the point and the viewer is supposed to leave pondering the morality of certian outlooks and philosophies but it still felt like it was just a tease for a whole slew of new movies in the making. And while having morally ambiguous characters and shadowy quasi-government agencies with 'protect the program at all costs' and 'we are the sin-eaters' mentalities is nice and all; such stories are not by any means new or insightful; they could almost be labeled as formulaic or 'old hat' by now.
5. S.M. Stirling
Minor background point: even if the recruiter lied, someone as dumb as Cross was supposed to be before he was enhanced would wash out of Basic Training (as a fair proportion of enlistees do).

He was in a state home and obviously barely functional, fer Chrissake.

You have to have a high school diploma or a GED to get into the Army these days.
6. sofrina
wasn't he basically on the same level they claimed that lindy what's-her-name was on in her trial for the abu ghraib scandal?
7. S.M. Stirling
Nope, she was fully functional. He wasn't; as shown, he had an IQ of 78 and couldn't operate on his own at all.

Really, I think Hollywood people generally have never met anyone in the Army.
8. ivanna
My friend and I didn't understand the explanation of how Cross became a fallen war hero, and, consequently, involved in "the program."
9. Hatgirl
@7 Considering how injured Kenneth was at the time of that interview, I presumed he was also doped up to the eyeballs on pain meds and would usually have been more together.
Elizabeth Barnett
10. denelian
my opinion was that Cross wasn't actually sub-par intellectually, but that he had an LD that made TESTING damned difficult. it happens to lots of kids, especially those in the foster system . hell, i've fought and kicked to get some kids re-tested m'self - kids who UNDERSTAND Heinlein don't have IQs of 85...

but that's just me.

aside from that aspect - i think Mr. Stirling they screwed it up!] is entirely correct - too many people in Hollywood never meet, or get to know, people in the military. they might meet officers, but not people :D
Elizabeth Barnett
11. denelian
transhumanism isn't just genetic manipulation to become more than human or the next "stage". there have been LOTS of thoughts about what it is, means, etc. genetic manipulation is just the most well known and argued about at the moment.
12. LarryL
There is a line in the movie where Aaron is in the cabin talking to his fellow transhuman. Aaron comments about how strange it is for wolves to be tracking himself, that is, a human being. The cabinmate remarks, "Maybe your not human."

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