"The Bourne Legacy" isn't a bad movie. Not at all. But after seeing it I was reminded of the World War II-era slogan, "Is this trip necessary?"
You are probably already aware that the fourth film in the franchise doesn't feature its title character. True, Jason Bourne, America's favorite memory-impaired secret agent (played by Matt Damon), is not the focus of the new thriller and isn't in a single scene (unless occasional mugshot-quality photographs count). Nevertheless, his shadow is always at the edges of the action, while his name comes up in conversations public and classified.
The central character of "The Bourne Legacy" is, instead, an operative named Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner. We meet Cross almost immediately, just as he is diving deep into an icy lake. As he pulls himself to a snowy shore and wraps a thermal blanket around his body, we are whisked away to furtive meetings between shadowy figures. Then back to Cross, who takes a pair of mystery pills while climbing a mountain. Then we're back in a war room, where characters played by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach -- among others -- talk in low, gruff voices, saying things like, "You were given a Ferrari and you treated it like a lawn mower," and throwing around terms like "Treadstone" and "Blackbriar" and "Larx," while a team of analysts pores over surveillance footage and top secret files. And then we're with Cross again, finishing a blood draw in the middle of the wilderness before he leaps across a void. And so on.
This kind of whip-saw storytelling happens throughout "The Bourne Legacy," but it's much more prevalent -- and annoying -- in the first act, and it thins out a lot of the suspense in the early going. It's as if writers Tony and Dan Gilroy had a checklist of expository elements to tick off before they could get into the meat of this particular chapter of an ongoing saga. That's too bad, because the scenes where Cross is braving the elements while on what he calls "a scavenger hunt" have a genuine air of mystery and danger about them, and when he meets a contact at an isolated outpost, there is an uneasiness in the conversations between the two strangers that feels true.
After a missile strike takes out the cabin Cross was staying in -- destroying a supply of the mystery pills ("Blues and greens," he calls them) in the process -- he takes flight for his life, with his wits as his most formidable weapons. (That he's almost superhuman, strength and speedwise, is another set of gifts in a struggle like this.)
It's here in the second act that the movie picks up steam and finds its stride. Somewhere along the way Cross decides to locate a doctor and research scientist, played by Rachel Weisz, who examined and administered medication to him over the past few years. She is the lone survivor of a shooting in her lab, and now -- maybe not coincidentally -- is a target of the same people who are pursuing Cross. After he rescues her from a group of killers, they must work together to stay alive, just out of the grasp of a powerful enemy with global reach. This means there are plenty of chases, hand-to-hand fights and shootouts, plus more than a few close shaves, as there ought to be in a movie like this one. Renner and Weisz are a good pairing; you like them, you root for them. Norton and Keach are effectively chilling as the men who are in charge of stopping our heroes. And the movie has a satisfying -- if open-ended, ready-for-a-sequel -- conclusion.
Unfortunately, "The Bourne Legacy" takes its sweet time getting to that point. My best guess is somebody thought that script needed to remind the audience of the tangled web that Bourne was trying to undo in the first trio of films -- gotta protect a potentially burgeoning franchise, after all -- but didn't trust that the audience could connect the dots on their own. Two and a half stars (out of four).
Content advisory: "The Bourne Identity" is rated PG-13 for violence and action sequences. While there is some blood shed on-screen, some of the more potentially graphic moments (particularly during the disturbing workplace shooting) are kept out of view.