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.