You don't need Matt Damon to revive the Bourne film franchise. And you probably don't need Paul Greengrass, the quick-cutting action auteur who directed the best of the Damon films about Jason Bourne, the trained and chemically altered super-spy who has lost his memory and is being hunted by the very people who made him.
But if you're bringing back Treadstone, introducing a new spy and new government overlords searching for him, moving on from Bourne, hoping to build on his “Legacy,” you darned sure better grab us, straight out of the box. An epic chase for your finale, two hours later, isn't enough.
Tony (“Michael Clayton”) Gilroy burns through 30 minutes of “The Bourne Legacy” without much happening. He takes a good, solid hour before getting this sequel-reboot on its feet. And an hour of Edward Norton, Stacy Keach and Donna Murphy and company sputtering dense spy agency jargon in a dimly lit “sit rep” room full of computers, phones and TV monitors is more than a test of patience. It's a test of whether this franchise deserves to go on.
Events here are concurrent with the tail end of the “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Things have gone “sideways,” and the spy lords need to tidy up. We glimpse Bourne in still photos, and Joan Allen and Albert Finney in scenes so disembodied as to seem like left-over footage from previous films.
If we've heard David Strathairn mutter, “This is a national security emergency” once, we've heard him say it a dozen times.
Norton is in charge of ending this operation of chemically altered soldiers, turning them into efficient, smart, hyper-sensitive killing machines. He makes a lot of speeches to get his team on task.
“We are the ‘sin eaters,'” he preaches. “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.”
The one agent they're having trouble tricking into taking one last pill — the one that'll kill him — is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). Cross dodges the drone sent to take him out and uses all his skills — his super hearing, his deadly sniper training, his pilot's license, his self-made safe houses and safe cars — to make his way back to the lab where he was altered, to get help from the doctor (Rachel Weisz) who helped create him.
Gilroy loses himself in the globe-spanning geography of this scandal, the scientific grunt work of Big Pharma, the pills Cross must keep taking to avoid a meltdown, the blood samples Cross takes and ships to the lab. Four films into the franchise, and Gilroy wants to show us how this sort of program might work. So much so that he keeps the characters separated, at a clinical distance.
Which is what Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz) has always done. Then, the science experiment she and her colleagues turned loose blows up on her. And it's only then that “Bourne” lives up to its legacy.
Renner is a more credible action hero than Damon, who benefited from blindingly fast editing. But Cross is not a compelling character until he finds the doctor, confronts her with “That's what I am to you, a NUMBER?” and tells her he needs his “chems.”
Their scenes together — confrontations hurled at us as they go on the run — are what bring “Bourne” to life. Cross challenges Dr. Shearing's “just following orders/ just collecting a check” morality.
Gilroy saves his big action beats for the latter acts and his great chase — a rehash of the parkour-influenced rooftop romps of earlier Bournes — for the finale. He and his co-writer brother Dan revisit not just earlier Bourne characters, but earlier Bourne plot contrivances. (You have to have a super-DUPER-agent to chase down your rogue super agent, right?)
The Gilroys don't kill or wreck “The Bourne Legacy.” But this Treadstone retread just treads water, and that's no way to make it Bourne again.