The Bourne Legacy battles its share of problems, the greatest of which is its inability to stand on its own merits. With franchise star Matt Damon bowing out, The Powers That Be now posit a second reprogrammed killing machine to replace his Jason Bourne. Not a bad direction to take, especially with the steely Jeremy Renner stepping up as the new lead. But if you want it to work, you need to focus your attention on the new guy, rather than constantly referring back to a character who no longer figures into the equation.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what The Bourne Legacy does: peppering notations and visual asides to the first three Bourne movies without questioning their relevance to this one. It takes only a few minutes to make the connection. After Bourne’s escapades in the third film, shifty espionage weasel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) decides to shut down his unit’s assassin-building program, closely connected to the one that created Bourne. By “shut down,” he means “feed the assassins poison and shoot everyone else in the head,” which doesn’t go over well with the two survivors of his purge. The first is a doctor (Rachel Weisz) involved in the subjects’ development. The second (Renner) is one of those subjects, and like Bourne he doesn’t take kindly to being shot at.
The central mystery surrounds Renner’s periodic need for strange pills and what might happen if he can’t get them. He doesn’t suffer from amnesia and he knows exactly who’s hunting him down, so the medication becomes an impetus to move the plot along. Like Franka Potente in the first film, Weisz serves as our surrogate: asking convenient expository questions while Renner comes up with new and cool ways to shoot people in the head. Their pairing works perfectly well, though it matches the first Bourne film a little too closely for comfort. Director Tony Gilroy crafts a terrific pair of set pieces to run them through their paces: the first set in a grand old house in the country, the second an eye-popping motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila.
The problem is that The Bourne Legacy takes a good hour to get to all that. Before then, it pounds its way through sludgy scene after sludgy scene, losing our interest almost before it begins. Norton and his team of evil wonks scheme in their darkened rooms as Renner runs through the Alaskan wilderness literally wrestling wolves into submission… all without giving us a single reason to take a rooting interest. Gilroy works hard to set up the big questions propelling us through the story, but can’t quite parse the fine line between enigmatic and obtuse. If we don’t care what Renner’s searching for, we don’t care about him, and while he scores some routine sympathy for being the little guy on the other end of a vast conspiracy, the actor has to work far harder than necessary to keep us invested.
Then there’s the absent Damon, whose shadow looms over the entire affair and whom The Bourne Legacy insists on dragging back as often as it can. The plot twists and turns resolutely fail to engage us, even if they didn’t periodically lead back to old footage from previous entries to further complicate matters. It all presumably connects to the larger Bourne mythology, but without more of an emotional stake, the film can’t convince us to pay closer attention. It becomes a lot of meaningless noise, a byzantine conspiracy that exasperates rather than intrigues.
In the end, the film just needed to be itself: acknowledging its predecessors briefly and concisely, then plowing ahead with its new leading man. Its inability to do that ultimately proves fatal, even if it hadn’t struggled so hard to find its footing in the first half. Renner has the chops to make a first-rate action star, particularly with material that aspires to some intelligence. The Bourne Legacy could have served as the launching point for him. Instead, it only makes us wonder how much better he could be in a movie less problematic as this one.