In a nice bit of visual symmetry, The Bourne Legacy picks up with the same image that both launched the billion-dollar series a decade ago and concluded Matt Damon’s contribution to the franchise in The Bourne Ultimatum: a body floating in the water. When we last saw amnesiac Jason Bourne, he’d figured out who he was, decided he wanted out and slipped away in the murky depths of New York’s East River. His character motivation, as compelling as it was—literally, who am I?—was played out, providing a graceful exit for Damon and director Paul Greengrass and opening the door for a fresh take on the mythology. As this sequel’s tagline reads, “There was never just one.”
Overlapping the events that wrapped up the original trilogy, The Bourne Legacy, directed by series screenwriter Tony Gilroy, reveals that Treadstone, a black-ops assassin-training program for the CIA, was just the tip of the iceberg. As explained in exposition that’s at times overbearing and opaque, there are, in fact, several divisions just like it spread throughout the government that Bourne’s arrival in New York threatens to expose. To prevent this, ret. Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton), the director of the National Research Assay Group (NRAG) that oversees these programs, decides to dismantle Treadstone’s sister in the Department of Defense, Outcome. And by “dismantle,” he means eliminate the six agents in the field as well as the science and medical researchers who developed the drug regimen that created these physically and intellectually superior killing machines.
Outcome agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is navigating a training facility in the Alaskan Yukon when all of this goes down and manages to escape both the wolves (in scenes straight out of The Grey) and the military drone tracking him. He returns to the Lower 48 minus the blue and green pills he pops to maintain his physical and mental prowess, and it’s these “chems” that drive the action from this point forward. Cross locates and rescues Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the only scientist who survives a shooting at the top-secret lab that monitors Outcome agents, in order to acquire more meds. She doesn’t have them, but, her life in his hands, she knows where they can get more, and they slingshot to the far corners of the globe (Southeast Asia replacing the European locales of the first three films) with a room full of government and corporate bureaucrats hot on their trail.
Why Cross feels he needs the drugs so badly is an interesting twist in an expanding conspiracy but ultimately can’t compete with Bourne’s fundamental struggle to uncover who he is and what he’s done. Two-time Oscar nominee Renner gives a characteristically fierce, visceral performance, but the material just doesn’t share the sense of discovery that Damon mined so subtly. Meanwhile, Weisz, who won an Academy Award for her role in The Constant Gardener, brings genuineness to Marta, a scientist who’s avoided the moral implications of her work, a lab geek who unleashes an inner fortitude to become an action hero in her own right on the other side of the world.
Gilroy, who’s directed Michael Clayton and Duplicity in the interim, does little to disrupt the flow from one Bourne movie to the next, employing the same handheld camerawork and blue-green hue that compose Greengrass’ signature style. But the action lacks innovation. Legacy revisits most of the series’ favorite set pieces—the impossible escape in a city on lockdown, a demolition car chase amid metropolitan traffic—but there’s none of the good knock-down, drag-out hand-to-hand combat that was so thrilling in the earlier installments.
The last Bourne movie came out five years ago. Rewatched in 2012, the trilogy holds up—a modern action-thriller classic. Legacy is a fine pseudo-reboot—mostly setup but good enough to warrant a sequel to see what Gilroy and Renner come up with next.
Director: Tony Gilroy
Writers: Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Dennis Boutsikaris, Oscar Isaac, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn
Release Date: Aug. 10, 2012