I defy anyone besides Matt Damon's biggest fans to accurately detail the plot of the Jason Bourne trilogy. Not just the run-Matt-run outline that could be handled in one movie but each shadow complexity stretching it over three. Solid action yet basically Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with car chases.
But the series made money so it must continue, with or without Damon and director Paul Greengrass. It's without, with Jeremy Renner stepping in as another CIA agent at odds with his bosses, Tony Gilroy continuing Greengrass' jitter-cam style, and a clearer picture of what has been happening behind all those grim discussions between gunfights.
The Bourne Legacy picks up where the third movie left off, where the saga could have stayed and few would mind. Jason Bourne was poised to blow the whistle on two covert CIA projects, including the Treadstone experiments in chemical enhancement of field agents like him. Damon makes only photograph cameos but his character looms over every frame of Gilroy's movie.
Renner plays Aaron Cross, another Treadstone product who, unlike Bourne, has continued to take his daily meds. Therefore he has more superhuman abilities than Bourne; keener senses, higher pain threshold and Spider-man's climbing abilities. Cross' survival training in Alaska gets interrupted by a drone strike, because the CIA is eliminating all its human guinea pigs before the story leaks.
Cross returns to civilization, jonesing for more "chems," which leads to Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist working on the project. She's a target, too, having barely escaped a lone gunman attack at the lab (that can't help raising memories of Aurora). Together they go on the lam, winding up in the Philippines where the drugs are made. The CIA is on their trail all the way.
The usual suspects from the Damon flicks — David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Joan Allen — make cursory appearances while Gilroy and his co-writing brother Dan attempt to distance their film from Greengrass'. Most of the desperate exposition this time is funneled through franchise newcomer Edward Norton as the agency's chief trouble shooter.
That's a good thing because it clears the muddle of names and motivations making the first three Bourne adventures tough to follow. It's also advantageous that The Bourne Legacy explains the breadth of the Treadstone project, making it more than just a MacGuffin to make someone sweat. The globetrotting is reined in, the mayhem at each stop just as exciting.
Renner is a sturdy action hero, with an interesting face that unlike Damon's appears to have taken a punch or two. The mad dog energy that made him an Oscar nominee for The Town was tempered in The Avengers and the last Mission: Impossible but here it flickers a bit. He might even make a fifth chapter worth seeing but I have the feeling that the message scrawled on a mirror at the climax is the best choice: No more.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.