It was plainly established in the first three films of the Jason Bourne franchise that there were other government-trained secret agents besides Matt Damon’s lead stationed throughout the world. Now that Damon has taken his leave of the series that secured his stardom, it’s time for another one of those operatives to go rogue in “The Bourne Legacy.”
Enter Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a recruit enhanced on a genetic level as part of the Outcome program, a literal evolution of the previous films’ Treadstone and Blackbriar projects, which Bourne helped to publicly expose at the end of 2007’s “Ultimatum.” His actions have resulted in a backroom scramble led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to eliminate all evidence, which includes disposing of test subjects and lab scientists alike. Cross escapes a drone attack in the Alaskan wilderness, while Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) recovers from a cold-blooded workplace shooting spree, and together, they flee to the Philippines in order to ensure their mutual survival.
As helmed by series standby Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton,” “Duplicity”), “Legacy” runs concurrent with the events of the last film, hardly skipping a beat to name-drop Jason Bourne in an effort to both explain his absence and allow for his potential return. The fundamental mystery of his identity is removed from the plot, though, and if anything, Cross is aware and afraid of his past, not regretful of it. Should Cross run out of his precious “chems,” his brain will eventually pull a “Flowers For Algernon,” but until then, he’s harder, better, faster, stronger than Bourne could ever be.
What’s more, Renner’s performance allows for greater empathy than that of Damon’s blunt-force weapon, and his physicality is certainly well-suited to the series’ trademark fight and chase scenes. However, these sequences often regress to the visual confusion that held back 2004’s “Supremacy,” before director Paul Greengrass subtly refined his handheld approach for “Ultimatum,” and the echoes of the earlier films plague them otherwise. An attack on Marta’s home resembles the Paris ambush in “Identity,” while a lengthy third-act pursuit across rooftops and on motorcycles -- easily this film's highlight -- is essentially an inversion of Bourne saving Julia Stiles’ Nicky in Tangiers during “Ultimatum.”
Before we even reach that point, Gilroy labors to establish the particulars of these interchangeable black-ops programs, stranding Norton in a generic control room, barking orders whenever vague authority figure Stacy Keach isn’t, and burdening Weisz with constant science jargon -- I hope you like the word “viral” used as a verb -- when not waiting to be rescued. (Two smart responses on her character’s part do not a strong heroine make.) Furthermore, the science at play seems a bit far-fetched for the generally realistic world of the series to date. Bourne was an everyman who came to realize that he was trained to kill; Cross knows his exceptional capabilities and will do anything to keep them.
The emotional stakes have been muted, the romance feels half-hearted and the thematic relevance of the original trilogy has been lowered from a righteous drive to a dull roar. Talented actors like Oscar Isaac, Corey Stoll and the returning Joan Allen and David Strathairn go to waste, and the main plot to take out every assassin seems handily undone when it’s time to introduce an antagonist (Louis Ozawa Changchien), whose capacity for empathy has been dialed down as the rest of his skills have been amped up.
It all comes to an anti-climactic close to the familiar strains of Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” keeping in line with the frustrating franchise-driven filmmaking previously personified by “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Prometheus” and games of Jenga. Damon’s entries may have tied into one another, but at least the stories they told were individually satisfying and whole. Regarding their secret weapon in the Far East, one analyst spits out that “he’s Treadstone without the inconsistencies.” It seems that “Legacy” is “Bourne” with some added in.