Jason Bourne is nowhere to be found in “The Bourne Legacy.” Instead, the villains’ storyline continues as ruthless government agencies try to decommission an entire line of Bourne-like super-soldiers, but fail to eliminate one: Aaron Cross, an agent whose name is far punchier than his personality. Subbing character actor Jeremy Renner into a franchise that requires Matt Damon-caliber magnetism, series scribe Tony Gilroy takes over the helming duties with an overlong sequel that features too little action and an unnecessarily complicated plot. Fans will come, but they won’t be happy, as if paying for a Bond movie and getting a 002 adventure in return.
After director Paul Greengrass walked away and Damon declined to reprise his most popular character, the producers were left with a sizable challenge, the sort creator Robert Ludlum clearly never faced in his novels. Rather than risk recasting the role, the filmmakers tapped Gilroy (who had written all three prior installments) to create a fresh agent in Bourne’s image, introducing Renner’s character with the tagline “There was never just one.”
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But Gilroy is a different kind of director from Doug Liman and Greengrass, less interested in explosions than in the mechanics of the bomb. Putting him in charge amplifies the backroom dealings (this time, it’s Edward Norton running the show from a Virginia-based crisis suite), to the detriment of the scenes featuring the franchise’s new protagonist.
Aaron Cross (Renner) belongs to a companion program, Outcome, similar to Bourne’s Treadstone, except that its genetically modified operatives are controlled by means of two pills: The blue capsules boost brain functioning, while the green ones improve their physical performance. When the supply runs out, the agents regress to their unmodified state, a prospect unappealing enough that Cross, trained to assassinate at the CIA’s whim, will kill to continue his dosage.
To get more drugs, Cross must locate Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who barely survived a brutal workplace shooting in a scene that would be disturbing enough without Aurora, Colo., still fresh in the mind. Theatrical line readings aside, Shearing behaves realistically under pressure, fighting off panic while Cross tries to protect her until the very end, when the film gives her a chance to assert her own survival instinct.
Though the espionage genre traditionally favors action, Gilroy is clearly more of a blue-pill kind of guy, having actively resisted standard spy-movie cliches since the series’ beginning. But the helmer pushes too far in the opposite direction here, resisting an opening-scene adrenaline rush and supplying clues in stingy portions more likely to frustrate than to flatter auds’ intelligence. Indeed, half an hour unspools before the action kicks in, and longer than that before things start to make sense.
Renner features throughout the first act, but his hazy character has been dispatched to remote Alaska on an ambiguous training exercise. While Cross slogs through the snow, Norton’s cold-blooded power broker, Eric Byer, cleans up the mess exposed by Bourne, whose one-man vendetta compromised not only not only Treadstone but Outcome as well.
In “The Bourne Identity,” the hero’s amnesia mirrored that pic’s way of dispensing information, effectively putting auds in Bourne’s shoes. Repeated on a character with a functioning memory, the approach feels like a tease, as Gilroy’s script (co-written with brother Dan) not only withholds crucial exposition, but wrongfully assumes that auds will automatically care about Bourne’s replacement.
Renner comes across as less immediately compelling than Damon, partly because it takes so long for the story to focus on Cross, and though the actor portrays a man in turmoil, the film fails to get inside his head. Outside, photos of Bourne flash by on surveillance monitors or clipped to files, suggesting that a more interesting film — namely, “The Bourne Ultimatum” — is unfolding elsewhere at the same time. Series regulars Albert Finney, Joan Allen and David Strathairn cycle by in the background, but this installment is wedded to the fate of Outcome.
An around-the-world montage introduces the program’s five other agents, whose mix of races and genders might have been intriguing, had Byer not succeeded in snuffing them out so quickly. These assassins typically work alone, which makes for a tense meeting when Cross encounters his first fellow Outcome agent (Oscar Isaac).
Unlike Bourne, Cross knows what he is and can fairly deduce who might be trying to kill him, but his top priority is finding a way to “viral out,” relying on Shearing to administer the serum that will make his enhancements permanent. To do so, they must travel to Manila, where “The Bourne Legacy” finally decides to become a Bourne movie, clumsily trying to squeeze as much action into the final reel as possible. If the filmmakers hope to carry on with Cross, they will have to rethink what auds expect from the character, offering more confrontation and less conspiracy.
Gilroy reassembles much of his “Michael Clayton” team, relying on composer James Newton Howard to help goose the energy. The combination of Robert Elswit’s elegant widescreen lensing and the measured editing by Gilroy’s brother John may be easier to absorb than Greengrass’ hyperkinetic docu-based style, but the pic’s convoluted script ensures that auds will emerge no less overwhelmed.