The first thing you need to know about The Bourne Legacy is this: It is not, in any meaningful sort of way, a Bourne movie. Jason Bourne's shadow certainly looms large, but the elusive supersoldier himself never makes an appearance in the fourth and latest film to bear his name. Also M.I.A. are series star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the second and third installments. Everything has been handed off to Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy, who has served as one of the architects of the popular action franchise since he co-wrote The Bourne Identity back in 2002.
In the absence of Damon and, therefore, the series' title character, Gilroy made a shrewd decision: to move the franchise sideways instead of forward. The action picks up where The Bourne Ultimatum left off in 2007. Treadstone and Blackbriar, covert operations that turn soldiers into nearly superhuman assassins, have been exposed, and rogue operative Jason Bourne is on the loose in New York City. The shadowy suits led by USAF Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) have an even bigger problem on their hands: In their haste to shut down a third and even more sinister program, Operation Outcome, another livewire has slipped through their fingers. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is a step beyond Bourne; he has been chemically and virally altered to make him smarter, stronger, faster and impervious to pain.
What we've got here, then, isn't really a sequel or a reboot, but a spin-off. The small screen has taught us that spin-offs are a tricky business; sometimes you get Angel, but sometimes you burden the world with Joanie Loves Chachi. Fortunately, Gilroy and—even more notably—Renner are up to the task.
In its pacing, Legacy is a dramatic downshift from the breathless pitch of the first three films, but it's engaging and often thrilling nonetheless. The first half of the movie bears much in common with the downbeat corporate noir of Michael Clayton. A considerable chunk of the movie orchestrates three different storylines set in a multitude of international locations, a dizzying cast of characters, and a barrage of flashbacks, but Gilroy manages to lay out the complex plot with impressive clarity. If someone tried to tell you about it, the first half of Legacy would sound like an incoherent mess, but Gilroy lays the groundwork so well that, when the storylines finally come together and the movie finds its legs, it's a pleasure to watch.
Much of that success can be attributed to the cast. At first glance, Cross isn't quite as compelling as his predecessor. When we met Bourne, he was an amnesiac driven to uncover his own past—a pretty intriguing motivation for a guy with his abilities. Cross's motives don't seem as admirable at first. He's addicted to "blues" and "greens"—drugs he has been taking, at his government's behest, that enhance his mind and body. He spends most of Legacy's running time on a global quest for a fix. Renner is amply watchable from the start, when his character takes a half-naked plunge into icy Alaskan waters and wrestles a wolf a few minutes later, but he becomes incredibly sympathetic once we find out why it's so important for him to retain his new abilities.
Besides Renner, who is both a perfectly believable action hero and an honest-to-God actor, Legacy's producers made another smart choice in bringing Rachel Weisz on board. Weisz costars as Dr. Marta Shearing, a geneticist who becomes Cross's accomplice in his increasingly desperate search for a fix. It's awhile before the two share any screen time, but once they're finally brought together by a pair of brilliantly executed action scenes, the chemistry between them is impressive. Their relationship isn't the standard sort we've come to expect—they can't slow down long enough to develop much of a romance—but it's compelling, touching, and utterly human.
Though Greengrass' sensibilities as one of the world's best action directors are missed in this outing, Gilroy is a master of mood. Legacy requires much from the audience in terms of suspension of disbelief, but Gilroy couches the film in the very real paranoia of a world that deals with questions about the morality of torture and fears of mass shootings. It's an incredibly tense and sometimes harrowing film. Once the action starts, it's relentless almost to the point of overkill; Legacy loses some of its hard-earned tension and becomes a fairly rote action film in its last few minutes, when a seemingly unstoppable, Terminator-esque villain shows up. Still, this is an auspicious retooling of a franchise that has yet to wear out its welcome.