Updated: August 13, 2012 12:06PM
Well, at least the studio didn’t simply hire another actor to replace Matt Damon as super-spy Jason Bourne and start the whole story over again, a la this summer’s earlier reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Instead, “Bourne” series head-writer Tony Gilroy (who also wrote and directed the much-admired legal drama “Michael Clayton”) to write and direct this first installment in a hoped-for second series — and he has responded to the challenge by dreaming up an entirely new lead character and moving the story in a direction unimagined in the Robert Ludlum novels.
Even more riskily, Gilroy has chosen to treat this entire first film as a long, elaborate introduction to the proposed new series and attempted to keep us interested by keeping us guessing for a long, long time about what’s going on, who is involved and why — a process that could easily try the patience of action fans accustomed to the more straightforward scenario of the first three films.
That’s not to say there’s no action in “Bourne Legacy.” There’s plenty and most of it is handled with a nice dose of inventiveness, economy of style and suspense. Some may consider this fourth installment a thinking-man’s action movie. Though others are likely to feel that there’s far too much talking going on and cogitation required compared to the screen time devoted to various sorts of mayhem.
“Legacy” opens by tracking a couple of loosely connected plot threads. A bearded man (Jeremy Renner of “The Hurt Locker”) in the wilds of Alaska retrieves a mysterious canister from a mountain stream and nervously tracks a pack of wolves on his trail, while even more nervously tracking his dwindling supply of little green and blue pills.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Washington, intensely annoyed government official Eric Byer (Edward Norton, evidently thinking “enough is enough” after his nice-guy role in “Moonrise Kingdom”) nervously tracks an ever-worsening security breach of mysterious clandestine programs with code names like “Treadstone,” “Blackbriar” and “Operation Outcome.”
Actually, the first two programs should be familiar to attentive “Bourne” fans, but there’s a considerable delay until Byer reveals that Outcome was a secret program that developed additional genetically enhanced super-agents on the Jason Bourne model and that the security breach (arising from events in “Bourne Supremacy”) has devolved to the point where it is necessary to kill off all the Outcome agents and start over fresh.
And a considerably longer delay until it becomes clear that Renner, playing the soft-spoken yet dangerous-looking Aaron Cross, is an Outcome agent — and that the little blue and green pills he’s running out of are the source of his extra-ordinary mental and physical abilities (begging the side question: where can I get me some of those?).
Cross soon has something else to worry about, though, after the government tries to kill him and another agent with a missile-firing remote-control drone jet, which he later takes out with nothing but a rifle and an unlucky wolf who gets too close to his quarry.
At that point, “Legacy” shifts into somewhat higher gear as Cross attempts to secure a fresh supply of meds from a laboratory in Manila with the assistance of Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), an Outcome research scientist he rescues/kidnaps after a couple of attempts on her life.
However we still have to wait a very long time to learn who Cross was in the past and whether or not he was happy doing secret government dirty work. At least the answers, when the come, are interesting, including the detail that in his original identity as a common soldier reported killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, he had such a low IQ (pre-green pill) that he could barely understand what he was getting involved in after recruitment.
There are other interesting details revealed along the way (relieved, as mentioned, by periodic outbreaks of super-violence capped by a spectacular, brilliantly edited motorcycle chase through Manila), such as the information that Cross had developed moral objections to his new career and, particularly, to his commanding officer Byer (who attempts to set him straight by saying “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary”).
What Byer means, of course, is that he himself is absolutely necessary. Everyone else, no matter how super-duper, is expendable.