A Bourne adventure without Matt Damon or the title character, 2012's The Bourne Legacy has always been a questionable project since its inception. 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum provided a wholly satisfying conclusion to Jason Bourne's character arc, leaving little reason to continue the series, especially since Damon and director Paul Greengrass showed no interest in returning. But The Bourne Legacy entered production nevertheless, with the always-reliable Tony Gilroy serving as co-writer and director. Fortunately, while it's not up the original trilogy's standard of brilliance, the film is no bust either. It's an unnecessarily talky and at times meandering thriller, yet it's also a periodically exciting and engaging continuation of the formidable series.
With Bourne having exposed Operation Blackbriar and the Treadstone Project, the CIA falls under FBI scrutiny. Called in for help, military advisor Eric Byer (Norton) convinces his superiors to shut down their assorted clandestine programs and terminate all of their supersoldiers. One such operative is Aaron Cross (Renner), who's toiling away in the Alaskan wilderness but is running low on the special medication which gives him enhanced physical and mental abilities. Byer and his associates are led to believe that Cross has been terminated, allowing him to live off the grid as he travels back to Maryland in search of meds. He finds an ally in Dr. Marta Shearling (Weisz), a biochemist who narrowly survives a mysterious murder-suicide in her lab. Dropping in before Marta can be finished off, Cross teams up with the anxious woman.
Tony Gilroy had a hand in scripting The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, making him an obvious choice to direct this continuation. Having all but nothing to do with the novel by Robert Ludlum, Legacy (written by Gilroy and his brother Dan) is not so much a reboot but a spin-off; a parallel track to Bourne's story. It takes place somewhere during the events of Ultimatum, and is built on a simple premise: Bourne caused a ripple effect throughout the intelligence community, and he was not the only Treadstone agent. Unfortunately, sizeable portions of the picture are precariously verbose, fruitlessly devoting an inordinate amount of time observing flustered CIA officials in dimly-lit rooms. While it may seem important to get a glimpse of the machinations within CIA headquarters and thus comprehend why they choose to shut down Treadstone, there's too much filler here and the material is ultimately less interesting than Aaron's more engaging story. One must wonder how effective the film might've been if the material was brisker. As it is, Legacy is often lethargic, and you'll be left glancing at your watch whenever Gilroy returns to CIA HQ.
Rather than retaining Greengrass' proverbial shaky-cam approach, Gilroy put his on aesthetic stamp on the franchise, opting for a more classical, sturdier filming style somewhat in the vein of Doug Liman's Bourne Identity. Gilroy's cinematographer was none other than Robert Elswit (The Town, Michael Clayton, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), so the movie looks predictably handsome. And when it comes to the action scenes, Gilroy never treads a foot wrong; each action beat is sharp and muscular. Especially impressive is a set-piece in an old house during which Cross dispatches bad guys with exhilarating finesse, and there's a chase through Manila which is as exciting as anything from the prior Bourne movies. Plus, there's a tense and chilling lab shooting that's destined to leave you speechless (especially in the wake of the infamous Aurora shootings). Gilroy gets massive plaudits for his skilful grasp of mise-en-scène.
Renner is a top-flight substitute for Matt Damon, as he's a charismatic star who can handle physical action scenes and command attention. Renner has bounced around the cinematic sidelines for years (most recently in Ghost Protocol and The Avengers), so it's satisfying to see the actor getting a lead role. Meanwhile, Weisz (who, impossibly, is even hotter here than she was in The Mummy thirteen years ago) is believable and watchable as Marta. Most of the movie called for her to just be confused and harried, but Weisz handled these requirements with aplomb, remaining eminently charming in the process. The rest of the actors, however, are completely forgettable. The likes of Norton and the returning Albert Finney had very little to work with, and as a result come across as empty, interchangeable cardboard cut-outs.
Perhaps The Bourne Legacy might have worked better with a revised structure. The tedious CIA material could have been entirely excised from the picture, allowing us to stay focused on Aaron at all times and therefore experience everything from his perspective. The "hook" of the Bourne trilogy was Jason's search for answers, and the films left us as clueless as the protagonist. As a result, viewers can feel personally involved in Bourne's adventures. But there are no mysteries in Legacy, and thus no hook. Instead, it's just a very routine action-thriller without many twists or turns. This is easily the weakest entry in the Bourne franchise, as it lacks the jittery momentum of its predecessors. Nevertheless, it's not a bad way to spend a few hours.