Considering how well the Bourne movies evolved with director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, The Bourne Legacy is most certainly a step back.
At least the film has continuity going for it, with Tony Gilroy now at the helm. Gilroy also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for the Bourne trilogy, and co-wrote the latest movie with younger brother Dan. Not surprisingly, the story is the best aspect of the expansion of the Bourne universe from Robert Ludlum's novels -- though it's not an adaptation of the novel also called The Bourne Legacy by Eric Van Lustbader, who continues to write novels based on the character.
The Bourne Legacy, in fact, really isn't a sequel so much as a spin-off of the original trilogy, though without so much as a cameo by Jason Bourne (Damon).
This time it's Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) who is the super agent on the run from the same U.S. government officials who created him and now want to kill him. In that respect, the story line feels tired and repetitive; we've lived this same scenario in three separate and better films. But Legacy further explores the program behind the agents.
It's all part of a clandestine government operation that reaches higher than the military brass at the Pentagon. And when this shadow project is on the brink of being exposed by a British journalist and a YouTube video, its chief architects react coldly: deep freeze the program and kill almost everyone below them who is involved in it.
Cross narrowly escapes termination, and like Bourne, he's not happy that his government has turned against him. But he's more concerned that the genetic code-modifying pills he takes to give him his added stamina, strength, and mental prowess are running low, so he turns to a scientist in the Bourne program, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), for help. He shows up at Shearing's country home just in time to save her life from government agents sent to kill her, and the two begin a race through back roads, airports, a pharmaceutical lab, and finally the alleys and crowded streets of the Philippines to get the pills he needs, while government officials rely on high-tech resources to track their every move.
Renner is an Oscar-nominated actor for a reason, but he doesn't have the necessary bond with audiences that Damon has to pull off this kind of role. Perhaps in a few more films our fondness for Renner will develop; meanwhile, we root for him to succeed as Cross, but I'm not sure we really care if he does.
Weisz is appealing as Shearing, but the role is nothing more than a damsel in distress with a PhD in genetics. There's also no chemistry between Renner and Weisz other than "thanks for saving my life" bonding moments, and Gilroy plays their relationship straight.
The main villains are Edward Norton as retired Air Force colonel Eric Byer, an emotionless and calculating figure and who is leading the charge to sink the program and kill Cross, and Stacy Keach as another retired military figure who could double for former Vice President Dick Cheney.
A few recognizable faces from the other Bourne films (Scott Glenn, Joan Allen) pop up and Jason Bourne's name is referenced more than once for no reason other than to make us aware that his story is concurrent with this one.
Gilroy wrote and directed the under-watched and under-appreciated spy caper Duplicity and the Best Picture and Director Academy Award-nominated Michael Clayton. But when it comes to directing action sequences, you either have the skills or you don't to pull off car chases and fight sequences. Greengrass developed the ability with The Bourne Supremacy, the second film in the series and the first he directed. By the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, he had mastered it. Judging by those standards, Gilroy has a long way to go.
The climactic chase sequence, which begins on foot, evolves into a nearly unwatchable mess by the time Cross and Shearing hop on a motorcycle. Gilroy keeps the camera's focus tight and he edits rapidly between shots, so the onscreen images flicker by like a deck of cards being shuffled. It's not only annoying, stare at it too long and you're liable to develop a headache.
The Bourne movies changed the action hero movies -- look at the Daniel Craig Bond films -- because they were fresh and visceral. With the Bourne Legacy the action is often a disjointed amateurish effort by a director who doesn't trust his abilities.
Cross, incidentally, is being chased by a Terminator-like super agent who has more powerful genetic enhancements than your standard variety Bourne-level agents. Their showdown is boring and anti-climactic, settled on a duel of motorcycles rather than a display of strength and endurance in a physical brawl.
It should come as no surprise that the Legacy sets itself up nicely for a sequel. But as this pedestrian action film's legacy proves, without Damon or Greengrass involved, the future of the franchise is average at best.
THE BOURNE LEGACY
Directed by Tony Gilroy. Screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy, based on the Robert Ludlum novels. A Universal release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for violence and action sequences. Running time: 133 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Aaron Cross .......... Jeremy Renner
Dr. Shearing .......... Rachel Weisz
Eric Byer ........... Edward Norton
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.