To many film score fans, trying to imagine the Bourne series without John Powell's music is akin to movie fans trying to imagine the Bourne series without Matt Damon. That may have been what writer/director Tony Gilroy had in mind all along when James Newton Howard was brought on board as the new Bourne Legacy's composer, alongside new primary character Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner. Gilroy's decision to continue the series in spite of these potentially alienating changes no doubt had many a Bourne obsessive follower wondering if they were about to witness a disappointing regurgitation of prior ideas, or a rigorous reinvention of the mythology that has for so long played out at breakneck pace right in front of us. Commenting only about James Newton Howard's score for the film, I can very positively say that a reinvention, nay, a rebirth, is close at hand.
The Bourne Identity fans will instantly recognize opening tune "Legacy;" it begins with the same two-note motif that will bring to mind Jason Bourne's body floating in the water from the film series' beginning. Then, right out of the gate, "Drone" introduces electronics leading to the first of wonderfully many loud and heavy guitar-based backdrops and rhythmic percussion sequences. Almost immediately, Howard showcases his talent not only for soft empathy but his ability to sharply break from calm to calamity with seamless transition. One is also reminded early on of Howard's score for Salt, but it's easily apparent that Salt is trumped with unrepentant confidence. The third and short track "Nrag" then brings to mind The Bourne Supremacy's "Goa," drifting thoughtfully into "You Fell In Love." Seven tracks in, and "High Powered Rifle," one of many album highlights, beings with oozing synth and faint, pulsing electronic riffs, then erupts into a minor crescendo before falling away to the gentle synth sound once again yet backed by echoing guitar effects. Next comes "They're All Dead," where Howard again demonstrates his skill with a heartbreaking and ever-so-faint string foray, leading into industrial-tinged beats developing with heavy guitar riffs (actually reminding of Charlie Clouser's work on the more recent Saw scores), before the whole assembly folds on top of itself, creating an infusing balance like the aural equivalent of slipping into an effervescent warm bath.
"Manila Lab" then snaps the listener back to reality with a head-bobbing driving riff backed with highly effective orchestral flair, then accentuated with muffled guitar. With next track "Wolves / Sick Ric," faint woodwinds are presented, falling into deep, cavernous synth and strings, bringing to mind Howard's haunting work for Unbreakable with electronic pulses. A few minutes later, "Wolf Attack" prompts a smile as it recalls the best of Sean Callery's work for 24, also densely present on the tracks "Aaron Run!" and "You Belong Here." The eighteenth track, "Cognitive Degrade," cements Howard's position as one of the best modern ambient string composers in existence, before spiraling into yet another highlight, "17 Hour Head Start." Wavering ambience, which reminds one of hearing aquatic tones from behind a door being intermittently forced ajar, develops into a rolling and fast-paced percussionist's dream, interspersed with orchestral surges rivaling the best sequences from The Bourne Ultimatum. Soon later, "Simon Ross" comes in with a mysterious and dissonant reverb-drenched guitar lead that's gone as fast as it appeared, breaking into "Larx Tarmac" which captures the soul of the underrated Bourne Conspiracy video game score by Paul Oakenfold. As the end of the score approaches, Bourne Supremacy's "Moscow Wind Up" and "Bim Bam Smash" are given new life and transformed into "Magsaysay Suite," before Howard's work aptly ends on "Aftermath," a heart-wrenching and soothing tune incorporating only the slightest electronic touches as it closes on an orchestral zenith. And in typical Bourne score fashion, musical artist Moby returns for another rendition of the closing tune, "Extreme Ways (Bourne's Legacy)," in which he very effectively introduces orchestral sounds previously unheard in other iterations.
Going in to this score, I wasn't expecting or even hoping for a Powell score soundalike, and was delighted to hear Howard creating something new for such a lauded and complex musical series. After all, it is the Bourne Legacy, not Bourne Replacement, and Howard leads the listener through so many enthralling twists and turns that the lack of a central theme isn't even noticed. Howard has constructed a profound masterwork approaching absolute perfection, incorporating his classic style for emotive and heartfelt passages with a seemingly newfound inspiration of gripping action and electronic intrigue only hinted at on his work for Salt. Extremely recommended to all John Powell fans, action film score fans, and let's face it, Bourne series fans, James Newton Howard's The Bourne Legacy is to date one of his best scores and sets a new precedent for action music in the modern age. Look at what they make you give!