Is there even precedent for a franchise losing its title character/main actor and continuing on? SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 3, maybe. Still, I have to admit, THE BOURNE LEGACY makes a daring leap of faith and comes out the other side pretty strong thanks to an ambitious script by Tony and Dan Gilroy (Tony directed as well) and a nicely conceived lead performance by Jeremy Renner, who continues to impress me as a thinking man's action star in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–GHOST PROTOCOL and THE AVENGERS.
Set in a timeline that is largely parallel with THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (which we're aware of thanks to key shots of some of that film's supporting players like David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and Paddy Considine), the new film reveals that Jason Bourne was not the only chemically enhanced government agent. But because Bourne went rogue and exposed the role of one particular division (led by Edward Norton, in full-on bad-guy mode) in this project, those in the know decide it's time to shut down the project in a hurry. And they don't simply call in the agents; they kill them all, mostly by poisoning their daily meds. But Renner's Aaron Cross (a slightly more rugged version of Bourne) is targeted for a missile launch at a small cabin in the snowy mountains where he's hiding out. He doesn't die but those trying to kill him think he did.
Concerned that his meds (or Chems, as he likes to call them) have run out, he makes a clandestine run for Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), the scientist that does his blood work every few months when he comes in from the field. Turns out Norton wants anyone with knowledge of this project dead, so agents are sent to kill her as well, and Cross shows up in the nick of time. The rest of the film is the two of them running for their lives, trying to get him more meds so that a virus-like element in his body can be eliminated as a danger to his health, and attempting to expose the program to the world.
Like all of the BOURNE movies, the cast is critical to selling some of the more outrageous plot elements, and this chapter has some great actors, including Donna Murphy, Corey Stoll and Zeljko Ivanek to add some substance to a film that already has an impressive list of returning cast members and Norton. The one thing that may shock some audience members is that the film features a whole lot of talking and exposition, which, quite frankly, it needs. The first two-thirds of the movie are light on action, but the final third makes up the difference, including a fantastic foot/motorcycle chase through downtown Manila.
I'm not sure too many actors outside of Renner could have kept me as interested in his plight; it doesn't hurt that his adversary is a heartless prick like Norton's character, and you don't realize until the end that, if memory serves, the two only share the screen once, and that's only in a flashback. There isn't a huge mystery hanging over this story, since we know most of the agency's secrets thanks to the last film, so Gilroy and company can focus on making one of the most intriguing cat-and-mouse stories I've seen in a long time.
With all of these pluses, the biggest negative I have to offer about THE BOURNE LEGACY is that I don't think I want another film with the name Bourne in the title if Matt Damon isn't a part of it. One time is clever; two times is a cheat. Hell, some may think one time is a cheat, but it all worked for me. Renner is on a real nice run right now playing slightly detached heroes who we still care about a great deal, so bring on (gulp!) HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS.