The Bourne Legacy

The series survives with cookie-cutter tough guy Jeremy Renner in the lead.

The Bourne series is furthered but not burnished by this fourth installment in the highly successful franchise heretofore fronted by Matt Damon. With Jeremy Renner stepping in to play another covert operative and franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy taking over the directorial reins from Paul Greengrass, the tone and look are maintained, but the visceral excitement is muffled by familiarity, an insufficiently conceived lead character and the sheer weight of backstory and multiple layers of deception. The box-office muscle of this final major name-brand attraction of the summer will be considerable but likely nowhere near the level of the most recent entry in 2007, which contributed $422 million of the $944 million the decade-old Bourne series has generated in worldwide revenue.

Gilroy, who wrote this one with his brother Dan, knows his way around the inner workings of the series and the levels of secrecy and treachery that have made the late Robert Ludlum's creation thrive onscreen (this film bears no resemblance to the 2004 novel by Eric Van Lustbader, who has written six more in the series).

Having proved his directorial acumen with Michael Clayton and Duplicity, Gilroy starts things promisingly with a rugged prologue that introduces Renner as a new off-the-grid Operation Outcome field agent, Aaron Cross, completing a rigorous solo training mission in Alaska. Cross can climb, jump, shoot and anticipate as well as Jason Bourne ever could, and can manage at least two things his predecessor never did -- defeat a wolf in hand-to-hand combat and take down a drone with which his superior, CIA manager Eric Byer (Edward Norton), targets him after learning that the entire program has been "infected" by Bourne's arrival in New York.

The first section of Legacy thus overlaps with the climax of the previous film, footage of which is intercut with Cross' remarkable survival of the drone attack and a resourceful cover-up that makes Byer think he's dead.

Thereby able to move around for a while without being tracked, Cross nonetheless needs critical medications only the government can provide, which links his fate to a genetic scientist, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who works with a few others to develop illicit drugs until a would-be deranged lunatic among them guns down most of his co-workers. But we should know by now there's a nasty ulterior motive behind nearly every act of violence in a Bourne film, and it's no different this time.

Cross too conveniently jumps into the good doctor's life just as she's engaged in a tense interview about the murders with superiors at her home, upon which they dash off as paired fugitives in the Hitchcock tradition, with the twist that the panicky government pursuers think there's only one of them.

Gilroy has worked out the intricacies of plot mechanics with a density as thick as it is clever, all of it again designed to underline the mercilessness and amorality of the CIA and such fictional secret organizations as Treadstone and Operation Outcome; as the forever-agitated Byer states, "We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary." This cynicism always has been at the cold heart of the series, and the appeal was that Damon's Bourne was always a match for it.

At first, during scenes in an Alaska cabin with a supposed contact (Oscar Isaac) that are laced with wariness, it seems Gilroy and Renner mean to make Cross into a naturally chatty, inquisitive type in contrast to Bourne's taciturn seriousness. This intention shows itself for a while longer once he gets to the East Coast, but then it vanishes, leaving Renner with little to play other than a cookie-cutter tough guy and action hero able to save the day many times over.

In reputation-making roles in The Hurt Locker and The Town, Renner displayed volatile unpredictability that bore comparison to James Cagney. Since then, with far more manicured and better-tailored appearances in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and now this, he has seemed straitjacketed and tamped down, as if having been advised not to come off as dangerous so as to be fit for general consumption.

Cross, like Bourne, should be dangerous, and it's not as if the character doesn't get to take down a bunch of assassins. But Gilroy has cheated his leading man out of a good part by providing scant backstory, personality traits or motivation other than the most simplistic of saving his own skin and that of his companion.

For her part, Weisz has a few good scenes to play, especially upon surviving the lab massacre and when facing down her inquisitors. The bad guys, from Norton on down, are terse, self-serving and ruthless "just do it" types.

At least as much as its predecessors, this is a globe-trotting affair, running from Alaska through Chicago, New York, D.C. and environs, Seoul, Karachi and, ultimately, Manila. With Gilroy's regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, the film looks first-rate, but the director backs down several notches from the radically amped-up approach to physicality established by Greengrass, to diminished returns.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 10 (Universal)
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach Director Tony Gilroy
Screenwriters: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy
Director of photography: Robert Elswit Rated PG-13, 135 minutes

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