'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.

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.)

To this end, he finds himself entangled with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a virologist who works for SterisynMorlanta, a military-contracted corporation that performs medical checkups on the agents in Cross's program. Shearing has just suffered a near-miss of her own, as one of her co-workers—could there be a connection?—pulled a handgun at work and shot everyone else on her research team. (It's a scene that plays far more chillingly this week than the filmmakers could have envisioned.)

From this elaborate setup, the film bounces across continents and counties, from Chicago to Seoul to Karachi to Manila, from the leafy Maryland suburbs of D.C. to the leafy Virginia ones. Gilroy's premise is a little goofy—physical and cognitive enhancements? really?—but his script (co-written by younger brother Dan) is sharp, liberally sprinkled with knowing jargon and dark wit. Moreover, Gilroy (with the help of his editor, other younger brother John) does a good job of keeping his balls in the air, alternating nimbly between on-the-ground action (Cross and Shearing, running for their lives) and behind-the-scenes intrigue (Byer and his minions, pulling strings in the situation room).

At least, that is, until the film's final act, when the movie falls out of balance with an action sequence that makes the mistake of substituting length for originality. The scene in question evokes first the Tunis rooftops-and-alleys pursuit of the last Bourne movie, then the Saigon-on-the-back-of-a-motorcycle chase of Tomorrow Never Dies, and finally (alas) the implacable onslaught of the T-1000 in Terminator 2.

Despite this disappointing conclusion, the new cast to whom the franchise has been bequeathed is uniformly strong. Renner proves himself a solid understudy for Damon, even if the character he plays is rather less interesting. Norton follows up his excellent performance in Moonrise Kingdom with another equally good as the spymaster Byers. Weisz brings a sensitive intelligence to the role of Dr. Shearer. And Stacy Keach is a pleasant surprise as Byers's scarred, Mephistophelian boss.

Perhaps the most interesting question arising from The Bourne Legacy is just how long the filmmakers hope to trade on the Bourne name without any, you know, Bourne. And while I'd like to say otherwise, history suggests that the answer may be "as long as they like." After all, five Thin Man movies were produced following the departure of the titular character (who was not Nick Charles, but his original suspect), and the Pink Panther diamond has appeared in barely half of the movies that bear its name.

Whatever the future of its franchise, The Bourne Legacy is an eminently enjoyable entertainment—a largely successful, if occasionally labored, effort to breathe new life into a storyline that seemed to have run its course. Is it enough to erase memories of Jason Bourne? Of course not. But it's enough to while away a few lazy summer hours.