Some franchises live or die with their stars, but the Bourne thrillers, their name aside, were never really about Matt Damon as Jason Bourne. They were about blurry-fast, adrenalin-revving, chase and fight scenes; exotic locations; intricate conspiracy plots with vaguely topical implications; and long-distance battles of wits between the hero and his low-key, desk-bound adversaries.
James Bond has catch phrases, cocktail preferences and personal magnetism; Bourne was just Bourne. Brain-wiped by the government into the perfect assassin, he was less a character than a vector of force, like the Terminator endowed with one compelling motive: to regain his humanity. In The Bourne Ultimatum, that story reached its natural conclusion.
So it isn’t particularly jarring to be thrown back into the Bourne world without Bourne. (Legacy actually takes place concurrently with the previous film, with Bourne mentioned but remaining off screen.) Under the direction of Tony Gilroy, who scripted the first three Bournes and directed Michael Clayton, Legacy is a smart, tense thriller, and Jeremy Renner fills Damon’s shoes just fine. The problem is pacing. Although the film flies by, it somehow ends up feeling like two thirds of a movie.
Perhaps Gilroy should have cut down on the picturesque prologue in which Renner’s character demonstrates his action-hero credentials by wild-manning it across the Alaskan wilderness like Liam Neeson in The Grey. He’s Aaron Cross, a participant in Outcome, the covert super-assassin program that succeeded Treadstone. The U.S. government, it appears, is using your taxes to fund a potentially unending series of such schemes, but rogue agent Bourne has exposed enough of its malfeasance to render Outcome a dangerous liability.
The damage control falls to cold-eyed bureaucrat Edward Norton, who quickly and ruthlessly goes about eliminating the program’s participants, super-soldiers and scientists alike. Cross escapes and finds his way to a fellow survivor, microbiologist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who he hopes can continue to supply him with the medication the program used to keep him mentally and physically “enhanced.”
Unlike Bourne, Cross hasn’t been robbed of his memory, and he wants nothing to do with his former identity — for reasons that, as they unfold, put a welcome twist on the other films’ formula. Like the soldier Renner played in The Hurt Locker, he’s chillingly businesslike about violence, but not impervious to its effects.
The film spends so much time exploring the dehumanizing corporate culture of the Outcome program that, when the typical Bourne action arrives, it feels almost like an afterthought. A lengthy chase scene in Manila is exhilarating enough to satisfy action fans — but by that time the movie is nearly over. Some of its most promising plot threads remain unexplored, such as the tension between Aaron and Norton’s puppet master, who trained him to kill and now plots to destroy him like a piece of defective hardware.
Gilroy makes less use of shaky-cam than his predecessor, Paul Greengrass, but his story is all over the place: The movie’s climax feels like its first big setpiece, and its ending is more like an exhausted pause. Early hints of deeper intrigues never pan out. A great sequel could redeem The Bourne Legacy — but, for now, it feels like a hastily aborted mission.