Early in The Bourne Legacy, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) orders his underlings to go over the files on amnesiac super-spy Jason Bourne. The goal is to find “all points of convergence” between the Treadstone project that created Bourne and a similar Department of Defense super-soldier operation called Outcome. This might as well be a mission statement for the newest Bourne movie, the first without Jason Bourne: find the points where The Bourne Legacy can intersect with the preceding three movies.
For this mission, Universal Pictures has recruited series screenwriter Tony Gilroy to direct, replacing and sometimes emulating Paul Greengrass. Gilroy’s screenplay, co-authored with his brother Dan, repeats the name “Jason Bourne” like an incantation, assuring the audience that yes, this does have to do with the character you love and yes, it is equally fascinating.
Of course, this follows from the premise that the Greengrass Bourne pictures are as good as their reputation, that they’re sophisticated, adult-oriented thrillers with a dash of real-world relevance. But this reputation ignores that after the freshness of Doug Liman’s original Bourne Identity, and despite Greengrass’ instantly recognizable style, the sequels can only re-tell the same story: a near-super-powered operative goes on the run from foot soldiers and government agents who oversee everything from offices and control rooms. The rogue spy eludes his pursuers; the story will continue next time.
As yet another step in this continuity, The Bourne Legacy appears seamless; as filmmaking, it’s less impressive. To his credit, Gilroy takes his time for the first half of the movie, cutting between isolated Outcome agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as he makes contact with a fellow, unnamed agent (Oscar Isaac), and higher-ups, led by Norton, scrambling to contain the problems of Bourne’s return to US soil at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum.
Cross’ efforts to discuss the program with his counterpart produce a quiet unease. Neither man’s motivation is immediately clear; the script reveals Cross’ background at a steady, compelling drip a process that turns out to be more intriguing than his actual character. Though Renner is already familiar as super-team backup (in both the Mission: Impossible and Avengers franchises), here, thrust into the lead, he’s charismatic and skilled, but also generic. Cross lacks Bourne’s all-American earnestness, and his relationship with Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the Defense Department scientist he saves, feels perfunctory.
The other half of the movie — the parts set in offices and control rooms — doesn’t offer many surprises either, but it benefits from the appearance of Norton, so agile in playing characters who consider themselves smarter than anyone in the room and seem disgusted by this fact. He’s peerless, in other words, at barking condescending orders. But these scenes also keep him separate from the action, along with the other actors playing Cross’ adversaries: Stacy Keach, for example, takes the sort of shadowy-nemesis role once filled by Albert Finney and Brian Cox, presumably paving the way for the introduction of Powers Boothe in a future Bourne movie (Scott Glenn is also on hand for a brief growl-off with Keach).
Gilroy obviously enjoys the displays of power and panic; his other two movies as a director, Michael Clayton and Duplicity, reveled in the ways adults deceive each other in the name of business. As such, his version of this spy game does calm down from Greengrass’ jittery, handheld style; for at least the first half, it resembles a Greengrass Bourne movie, reconfigured by the poor man’s Steven Soderbergh (though in place of Soderbergh’s sly humor, silliness creeps in: at one point, Cross takes revenge on a pack of wolves).
When the movie shifts into more traditional action for the back half, it goes further and further into Greengrass’ territory: a shoot-out, lots of fights, and a spectacular if somewhat familiar foot chase that turns into a spectacular if very familiar motorcycle chase. By the last half-hour, the cuts fly as fast, furious, and occasionally incoherent as the previous two films; Gilroy is a capable filmmaker who nonetheless lacks his predecessor’s talent for occasionally turning fast-cut images into iconic abstractions.
With only brief departures from the formula, The Bourne Legacy serves mainly to extend the franchise and elaborate on the world drawn from Robert Ludlum’s novels and introduced onscreen 10 years ago. To be fair, this was true of the other sequels, too; the series’ habit of making an enormous fuss over a relatively uncomplicated story has come to resemble the cheapo scares of Saw movies rather than the loftier aims assumed by geopolitical thrillers. It fits the perpetual-franchise profile that Legacy doesn’t really go anywhere: Cross and Marta go after a MacGuffin and get chased, while the bad guys spend time discussing the previous Bourne movies. “Sorry,” a government operative says at one point, “there’s a lot more going on here.” I’m not so sure there is. I’m not so sure there ever was.