“The Bourne Legacy” slyly tacks on a fourth installment to this popular series, though many of the key names—in front of and behind the camera—are missing in action. Gone are Matt Damon as Jason Bourne and director Paul Greengrass, who made the last two in the series such a treat to watch. Reduced to cameos are David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, and the redoubtable Albert Finney. In fact, Bourne himself is out of the picture, though there are snippets of his last film, “The Bourne Ultimatum,” neatly dovetailed with this current number.
In his place is Aaron Cross, aka #5, a new, genetically-engineered black ops agent. As played by Jeremy Renner, Cross lacks some of Bourne’s vulnerability, though he is in a sense even more susceptible to being taken out of the game by his own people. As the opening establishes, in the wake of Bourne’s uncovering of the ultra-secret operations of which he was a part, the government has opted to shut down their successor, a nasty business code-named “Outcome.”
Doing so entails getting rid of the six chromosome-altered agents whose extraordinary powers have been chemically induced. During a survival training exercise, Cross narrowly escapes being blasted by a predator drone, using his wits and a high-powered rifle to cross up (sorry) his superiors. He finds the scientist who has been his medical contact (Rachel Weisz), saves her from being eliminated, and the two set off in search of the “chems” he needs to sustain his new powers and, in a way, his new identity.
Thus, the original Bourne’s quest to discover his lost identity is neatly flipped. But director Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the screenplays for the first three Bournes as well as this one, retains many of the features that has made the series so popular. Though “Legacy” lacks the breathtaking pace of its predecessors, as well as the love interest of the first two, it has plenty of chases, martial arts fighting, and general skullduggery and mayhem we’ve come to expect. If you haven’t seen the first three, you may be a little at sea to begin with. If you have, you’ll enjoy the many visual allusions—and some subtle musical one—in this fourth installment.
Robert Elswit replaces Oliver Wood as cinematographer with little drop-off in quality, particularly in the movie’s opening in the Alaskan (actually Albertan) wilderness. James Newton Howard’s score and the deft editing of John Gilroy (yes, Tony’s brother) move the action along briskly, though with rather more pauses for dialogue than in the prior action flicks. These are generally good, especially in the scenes involving Renner and Weisz, as they haltingly, suspiciously come together in the interest of mutual survival. I also enjoyed an all but unrecognizable Stacy Keach as one of the government heavies and the screen energy of Edward Norton as his counterpart in the fictitious (I hope) agency that decides to wipe out the agents rather than let CNN find out about them.
Rated “PG-13” for violence and thematic material, “The Bourne Legacy” might have deepened its appeal, if not exactly broadened it, by exploring some of the implications of genetic engineering and scientific participation in the name of patriotism. (Remember the Nazis?) But this movie is finally the stuff of thrillers, not ethical reflection. (Gilroy’s’ first directorial effort, “Michael Clayton,” does manage to comprise both.) The close of “Legacy” leaves open the distinct possibility for a fifth entry in the series: I expect this fourth one to do well enough to make that happen.