I suppose it could be said that The Bourne Legacy isn't exactly the picture that fans of this billion-dollar franchise were expecting, except that I suspect it actually is. The movie is a predictable letdown. Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two Bournes (Doug Liman directed the first one), has a gift for exciting, high-style action that defies replication. New director Tony Gilroy—the lead writer on all three previous installments—isn't noted as an action man (his two other pictures are Michael Clayton and Duplicity), and he may have known going in that there was no way to completely fill the huge boots left empty by Greengrass' departure. So Gilroy has made his own kind of picture. It's not a bad movie; it's just not a great Bourne movie.
Since Matt Damon bowed out of the series along with Greengrass, there's no more Jason Bourne, either. You'll recall that the renegade CIA assassin was teasingly seen swimming out of frame at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum. So the character is still alive, and while we never see him, he's said to be nipping around the edges of the events in this film, compromising the Agency's black-ops programs and endangering a related military undertaking called Outcome. Like the earlier Treadstone and Blackbriar, this super-hush operation also involves a group of medically bent lone-wolf killers, among them Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner. Renner is an actor of distinctive presence, projecting an iron intensity he can instantly soften with the smallest of smiles. But although he's suitably buffed-up here, and very fast on his feet, he hasn't yet acquired Damon's movie-star magnetism, which in this high-octane world is requisite.
Renner is hardly the picture's central problem, however. Its disabling flaws are Gilroy's unsuitably measured pace, which sometimes drags, and the dense complexity of the script (written by the director and his brother, Dan Gilroy), the patterns of which are slow to emerge. The overlong opening introduces Cross hiking through the snowy mountains of Alaska. He has inadvertently dropped off the grid and out of sight of his military handlers in Virginia—a pair of officers named Byer (Edward Norton) and Turso (Stacy Keach). Cross is running out of the custom meds he needs to function in his lethal trade—blue pills for brain enhancement, green pills to jack up his reflexes. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Byer, alarmed that Outcome may soon be blown by the devious Bourne, has decided to close down the operation and terminate Cross and all the rest of the program's point-and-shoot operatives. (We see them being violently retired in Seoul and Karachi and other insufficiently exotic locales.)
With an Alaskan blizzard blowing in, Cross meets up with a fellow Outcome agent (Oscar Isaac), and together they repair to his mountain cabin, where quite a bit of talking takes place. Things finally pick up when Byer—far away but, in the Bourne manner, technologically omnipresent—unleashes a devastating drone attack. There shortly follows an encounter between Cross and a big bloodthirsty wolf; this ripping scene resolves in a clever way, but it still seems out of place in a Bourne movie.
Unable to come in from the cold, so to speak, Cross decides that his best bet for a refill on his assassin meds is to track down the doctor who administers the Outcome program, a biochemist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). After a few bullet-storm mow-downs, she agrees to help; now all they have to do is somehow evade Byers' pursuing trackers and make their way to Manila, where the meds are manufactured (talk about outsourcing). The rest of the movie, which runs well over two hours, is a frantic chase, with time-outs for explication and well-constructed character development. (Renner and Weisz are an appealing odd couple.)
The dialogue is as intelligently wrought as you'd expect from a writer who's been on the case since Bourne One. But apart from two explosive set-piece scenes—a vicious attack on Marta's home and a stalking massacre in a locked laboratory that has an unsettling contemporary resonance—the action here falls short of the high standard established in the preceding films. Gilroy attempts the hand-held camera style that Greengrass used to such electrifying effect; but the new director doesn't have the old one's gift for visual coherence and inventive staging, and his action scenes sometimes leave us unmoored in a whirling kinetic blur. He also recycles a number of familiar Bourne tropes—the leaping rooftop chase, the automotive rampage—but these are so similar to sequences executed with more flair in the earlier movies that the response they summon is largely one of disappointment.
A few characters from the previous movies are briefly paraded through to establish some sort of overarching continuity: Joan Allen's straight-shooting Pamela Landy, Albert Finney's sinister Dr. Hirsch, David Strathairn's duplicitous Noah Vosen. But their presence only serves to remind us what's missing this time around. The Bourne Legacy is overshadowed throughout by the Bourne legacy.