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The Bourne Legacy arrives as the promised continuation of a mega-franchise, but it's worth remembering that even Jason Bourne had humble origins. The Bourne Identity arrived in 2002 as a sleeper hit-- it finished second at the box office its opening weekend to Scooby-Doo-- and it took many people a while to cotton to the way Matt Damon and Doug Liman had given the spy thriller a sleek, soulful update. But Bourne Legacy arrives all wrapped up in The Bourne Ultimatum, both in terms of expectations and quite literally in its plot-- understanding the first 30 minutes of the new film practically requires re-watching Ultimatum, or at the very least, carefully parsing its Wikipedia plot summary.
Because, as you may remember, the Bourne movies are really complex, and The Bourne Legacy shoulders the double challenge of establishing its own mythology while jumping off from the previous trilogy-- something writer/director Tony Gilroy clearly relishes, having written all of the previous Bourne films, but can't quite master this time. The opening act of the film jumps frantically from government war rooms to foreign cities to the mountains of Alaska, as a very tense and very good Edward Norton tries to get a handle on the havoc wreaked by Jason Bourne in Moscow and London (from the beginning of Ultimatum), all while our hero Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) undergoes his own Arctic training in the same program that once created Bourne-- well, mostly. Familiar faces like David Strathairn, Joan Allen and Albert Finney are relegated to the background, and Norton's Eric Byer is the head of not Treadstone, but Operation Outcome-- "Treadstone, without the inconsistency." No, I'm not quite sure what that means either.
There's a whole lot to chew on in the beginning-- and we haven't even gotten to Rachel Weisz as the scientist working in the lab that creates meds for these super-soldiers-- and it's almost frustrating to keep returning to Aaron out in the wilderness, managing by luck and some skill to escape the deliberate execution of every other Outcome agent. But eventually Aaron makes it out of the wilderness, tracks down Weisz's Dr. Marta Shearling and saves her from her own execution, and the two of them go on the run, in a manner very familiar to Bourne fans. Aaron's motivation isn't quite as existential as Jason Bourne's was-- he's looking for more of the medicine that makes him smarter and faster-- but it works, and with Norton dispatching all the forces of the shadow government after them, the cat-and-mouse format doles out the required thrills, with more than enough surprises to keep it interesting.
But while Gilroy clearly loves managing all the moving parts of the expansive plot, he's less skilled with the action, especially when it comes to the big motorbike chase sequence at the end, which is incomprehensible. And though Renner is a truly terrific action star, with the pugnacious face and hooded eyes that suggest he could snap at any moment, he's just no Matt Damon; Damon's Bourne always struck you as the boy next door thrust into an uncontrollable situation, and even when snapping necks, he seemed to regret it. Aaron Cross seems to have no such qualms, and when he takes down diligent security guards or filches a gold watch to provide for his next escape, there seems to be genuine menace behind it. That would work in many movies, but it's a tougher fit in the Bourne universe, where the violence can get so grim that you at least need to feel for the guy who's throwing the punches.
It would have been nice to embrace Aaron Cross in a movie more like The Bourne Identity, which sneaks up on you and gives you larger plot questions to answer only after you've gotten to know the guy. But the rule of franchises is that this new movie must be enormous, so Legacy expands for something as big and important as Ultimatum, without putting in the time to get to that point. Perhaps in a second movie Aaron Cross can stand on his own, but for now he feels trapped in the shadow of what came before.