Tony Gilroy is certainly no stranger to the Bourne series. It was Gilroy who, with the help of others, adapted Robert Ludlum's novels and penned all three of the original Matt Damon-led Bourne films. Nor is Gilroy a stranger to less action filled, more methodically paced espionage: he was Oscar nominated for both his direction of and screenplay for 2007's Michael Clayton, a film that managed to create an incredible sense of tension almost purely with dialogue. When Gilroy was handed both writing and directing duties for the first Damon-less Bourne film, the question was what direction he would take the franchise.
An attempt to replicate the established formula risked repetition, while an attempt to create something more in line with Michael Clayton risked straying too far from what made the original trilogy work so well (obviously there wasn't just strategy A and B, but as those are Gilroy's most recognizable works and most in line with the current subject, the comparisons are understandable).
The Bourne Legacy ultimately does a bit of fence sitting, borrowing more than enough to be a recognizable entry in the series yet attempting to distance itself as well. The results are mixed, but thanks to committed performances and an engaging enough plot, Legacy remains entertaining.
To my surprise, The Bourne Legacy is less a traditional sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum as it is an alternative sequel/spinoff to The Bourne Supremacy. What I mean by that is Legacy actually is taking place at the same time Ultimatum is, hence the present tense references to Jason Bourne and Treadstone, and the brief appearances of old characters played by David Strathairn and Joan Allen (there is even old footage of Paddy Considine's Guardian reporter during the "catch-up" phase of the film). If you'll recall, Ultimatum dealt with Jason Bourne's continued attempts to sort out his past, and the attempts of the heads of the Treadstone/Blackbriar government program to sort out the problems Bourne had caused on an individual and program-wide level. Legacy concerns itself with what appears to be a group of governmental officials one or more levels above those in the previous Bourne films.
Here, we have Edward Norton's Col. Byer, who, recognizing the problems that Bourne is causing, decides to solve the problem at the source - by destroying the entire program, all of the agents involved, and what is at first presented as a mysterious medical laboratory that appears to have something to do with why the agents are the way they are. One of those agents, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), manages to escape attempts to take his life and ultimately comes into contact with Dr. Shearing (Rachel Weiss), a scientist in the aforementioned lab, who needs his help as much as he needs hers. Naturally, the government continues to pursue the pair, and we learn more about the program and the science behind it.
Sure, the scientific explanation behind Cross and the program is ultimately pretty silly. It's also, in a strange way, perhaps a bit too simplistic considering the complicated nature of the Bourne narrative as a whole. But I'm not sure the explanation we're given is any less silly than the existing alternative—which was just to assume that Bourne, Cross and the rest were the way they were because ... well ... just because. Perhaps this time a silly, concrete explanation is better than no attempted explanation.
While the plot does feel like something that Matt Damon's Jason Bourne could very well have been a part of, I appreciated Gilroy's efforts to make the action sequences significantly more subservient here than in any of the previous Bourne films. I would venture to guess there is much less time spent on what would be considered traditional action sequences (outside of the final 30ish minutes) and more time spent on exposition and explanation. Not to say the original films had neither of those things, but at times they occurred mid-action sequence (which probably had a lot to do with the whole amnesia thing).
The problem with focusing less on action comes via some weakly written dialogue and a less than fully developed Aaron Cross character. The weakness in dialogue really shows during the scientific discussions, which often seem to be masking the fact that they have very little to say with pseudo-intellectual language. More often than not, discussions seem to end with characters saying things like "it's just the science!" The whole thing is treated like it's much more complicated than it really is.
There are also hints at a potentially deep and interesting back story to Renner's Cross, as well as some limitations to his abilities pre-program that aren't explored anywhere near as much as they could have been. This is a shame considering the film feels far too long as is. Cuts could have been made elsewhere (like an extended snow sequence which, although quite good, has an ultimate purpose that doesn't seem to warrant its length) to develop the character further. This limited exploration screams sequel.
These limitations are salvaged by the fact that Renner is really strong as Cross. Dare I say he's close to being as formidable a lead as Damon? Weiss is also not only the best actress of any of the female Bourne characters, but overall she is the most interesting character. There is an argument to be made that Weiss' basically innocent doctor caught in the middle of a government cover-up is actually the main character, as most of the plot strands end up finding their way back to her. Norton almost seems to be identical in many ways to Strathairn's character, and isn't necessarily given as much to do as one would have hoped. To no one's surprise, what Norton is given, he handles expertly.
Technically speaking, Legacy doesn't have too many issues, with some noticeable CGI action moments being among the most noticeable annoyances. All things considered, Legacy is a worthy entry into the Bourne catalogue (while not as strong as some of the previous films), and it expectedly opens the door to further sequels. The question will be how much longer the filmmakers can continue stringing along the same basically connected plot before going in a different direction entirely.