The best way to enjoy “The Bourne Legacy” is by not having seen the other three “Bourne” films. That way, those trilogy tidbits which play out again here, as a sort of instigating background action, won’t seem redundant but instead like alluring ads for the fresher and more adroitly managed movies that still await you. Well, if only things were so simple.
Inspired by the books of Robert Ludlum rather than adapted from them, “The Bourne Legacy” was written and directed by a writer of its three predecessors, Tony Gilroy, along with his brother Dan. Matt Damon isn’t around — except in a passport photo, fittingly enough — but Jeremy Renner is here as another secret super-agent ducking out on his dubious federal employers and consequently dodging extreme-prejudice termination.
Alert, affable, and only violent when absolutely necessary, Renner gets across the plot-driving idea that he was a regular grunt once, and his newly extraordinary mental and physical sharpness actually is a matter of pharmacological enhancement. Indeed, drama is derived not just from his rescue-slash-abduction of a research scientist (and requisite nursemaid) played by Rachel Weisz, but also from the perpetual worry that he’ll run out of pills to pop.
Like Damon before him, he’s presented as the product of a sinister intelligence division that’s desperate to protect its own secrecy and ominously adept at surveilling, controlling, and shutting people down. The chief operator there is a steely-eyed Edward Norton, looking quite at home in dark rooms full of video monitors, chewing out his subordinates or supervising drone strikes against them. It’s thanks to the actual Bourne having blown the division’s cover, and Norton’s scorched-earth response, that Renner’s guy becomes a target.
The Bourne legacy, then, is a military-industrial complex in lethal bureaucratic panic. And Gilroy, that shady-dealings enthusiast, also of “Michael Clayton” fame, goes about his business like a true espionage wonk. He’s good at earnest, jargony banter, and at staging those portentous moments when characters face off and size each other up, thinking or saying, “How do I know that you’re even cleared for this conversation?” The movie’s most attractive feature is its commitment to an authentic aura of agitated bureaucratese.
So maybe it’s inevitable that the way “The Bourne Legacy” does suspense is by cross-cutting between faintly boring scenes that swear they’ll build to something eventually. And they do, sort of. Sampling indiscriminately from the grab-bag of Bourne-movie staples, Gilroy opts against the brutal prolonged fist-fight of death in favor of the brutal prolonged street-chase of incoherence. Late in the game he gives Renner a rival, but then just seems to give up.
The movie’s least attractive feature, and likely proof that three was enough for this franchise, is a nervous urge toward self-demystification. Chemically abetted gene-tweaking seems like comic-book superhero stuff, and ordinarily that’s fine, but where this otherwise proudly plausible series is concerned, it’s gotten disappointing — dangerously close to that ruinous moment in the “Star Wars” prequel when the Force was explained away as something precisely measurable and molecular.
It is, however, intriguing to think that without his brain-boosting dope our hero here is sort of a dummy — and frustrating, therefore, that Renner doesn’t get a real regression to play with, unless of course you count the entirety of the movie.