It was a good idea on paper, but in execution The Bourne Legacy‘s attempt to re-stoke the fires of the franchise with a new face stuffed in the same formula comes across as Bourne Lite. A good espionage flick weighed down by three movies-worth of familiarity and too much devotion to the series’ back story, its baggage prevents it from matching its predecessors.
Jeremy Renner, most recently seen as Hawkeye in The Avengers, is a decent enough substitute for Matt Damon, playing super-soldiery covert operative Aaron Cross, introduced during a training mission in Alaska that has him swimming in icy waters, hiking over treacherous terrain, and fending off a pack of wolves.
Cross is a product of Project Outcome, a sister operation to Project Treadstone which spawned super-agent Jason Bourne; but whereas Bourne was the product of mental reconditioning, Cross has had his very DNA tinkered with in order to boost his physical and mental abilities. When Bourne’s arrival in New York (detailed in the second film) threatens to expose Treadstone, Outcome’s supervisors Admiral Turso (Stacy Keach) and Eric Byer (an enjoyably ruthless Edward Norton) orders Outcome “burned to the ground” lest they get caught in the undertow when Treadstone goes under. Everyone is annihilated with the exceptions of the cunning Cross and just plain lucky geneticist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), whose help he needs in order to obtain more of the special medication that keeps him functioning.
Renner proves to be a more-than-capable leading man, executing the expected tropes of fist fights, shoot-outs, offensive driving, and general badassery with the necessary flair, but the role strips him of both the volatile edge that made him a high point in The Town and The Hurt Locker and denies him the brooding intensity of Bourne.
Gilroy’s writing is, as usual, tight but by-the-numbers. This is his third film as director (following the drama Michael Clayton and caper comedy Duplicity) and his first action flick and the results are mixed; he avoids the shaky handheld camerawork employed by director Paul Greengrass in previous installments, but his action sequences are often confusingly choreographed and choppily edited, so the switch evens out.
As a whole, the movie is part of a larger story arc that Gilroy already has mapped out, one that presumes audiences will be clamoring for a sequel and the return Damon. Legacy is designed to coincide with events from the second film (The Bourne Ultimatum, characters and footage from which are reused here), which in turn dovetailed with the third installment (The Bourne Supremacy). The result is a narrative jigsaw that, while ambitious, comes across as gimmicky and unnecessarily dense. Complex plotting can be fun, but not when it requires a flow chart and a Vin diagram to keep track of what’s going. Capping it off with an abrupt ending that offers no resolution only heightens the frustration.
Greengrass turned down the offer to direct this installment, saying he had no interest and suggesting it be called The Bourne Redundancy — a harsh assessment, but ultimately an apt one. The Bourne Legacy is fine in general as an action thriller, but it’s an unworthy successor to the title.