'The Bourne Legacy': New Secret Agent, Nearly Same Intrigue

The franchise isn't fresh, but a sharp script and cast keep the fourth thriller thrilling enough.

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The tagline for the new Bourne movie is "There Was Never Just One," which I fear could serve as a motto for nearly every summer blockbuster of the past 35 years. If this latest installment, The Bourne Legacy, is successful, we will no doubt eventually be treated to The Bourne Inheritance, The Bourne Perpetual Endowment, and, perhaps, the bucolic-demonic crossover Children of the Bourne.

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, The Bourne Legacy opens with a tease: A man floats briefly in chilly waters before commencing to swim. Is this Matt Damon's Jason Bourne? That is, after all, exactly where we left him at the conclusion of the last chapter in the franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum. But no, it's not Damon, and it's not Bourne.

The most interesting question arising from 'Legacy' is just how long the filmmakers hope to trade on the Bourne name without any, you know, Bourne.

Gilroy's movie is a slightly odd duck, neither precisely sequel nor reboot. Bourne is absent, save for a few references and a driver's license photo. And the other recurring characters in the franchise—played by Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney—are afforded only small cameos. Instead Gilroy, who wrote all three previous Bourne screenplays, has expanded his Ludlumverse, shifting focus to a still-deeper ring of government plotters and their still-deeper plots.

The first act of the new film takes place concurrently with many of the events of the last: the assassination of a journalist in London's Waterloo Station; Bourne's return to New York; the gradual unraveling of the CIA's clandestine Treadstone and Blackbriar operations. But behind those operations lie others, and at their center sits USAF Colonel (ret.) Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a bureaucrat of lethal competence at a black-budget agency so powerful that it goes by the narcolepsy-inducing name the National Research Assay Group. As Byer notes, "Treadstone was only the tip of the iceberg." But the operation's exposure threatens to reveal the entire iceberg, so Byer sets about sinking it so deep that it will never be found.

This is not good news for field agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who is a part of that iceberg. Cross is a subject in an ultra-secret program called Outcome, which aims to chemically increase physical and cognitive capabilities. As the movie begins, he is training in the wilds of Alaska, dodging wolves and leaping chasms. (He's the one we saw swimming in the opening scene.) It's there that he receives the message, delivered by Predator drone, that his services will no longer be required. Given that his training and enhancements leave him ill-suited for most alternative careers, he declines the offer of early retirement and returns to the lower 48 in search of—

I'd begun to type the word "answers," because that's what the hero in a Bourne picture is always in search of. But unlike his predecessor, Cross has suffered no memory loss, and what he is seeking is rather more mundane: a steady supply of the green and blue pills that keep him, respectively, at his physical and cognitive best. (He has, as we will learn, his reasons.)

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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